Albert replies to Libcom criticisms

A response by Michael Albert to A workers' critique of parecon

Recently an essay criticizing participatory economics was brought to my attention, via IOPS. "A workers' critique of parecon" appears on the site libcom, at I quote the piece extensively as I reply.

I should perhaps also note my motivation. While there is nothing in the essay that I and others haven't addressed often before, still, I wanted to respect the effort by addressing the author's comments directly. More, the concerns in the essay keep coming up, seemingly without reaction to each round of replies - so I can only reply yet again. Hopefully someone will put this essay on the libcom site, as well as its appearing here.

The author, Steven Johns is mostly concerned about parecon's remunerative norm - which, as he rightly notes, is that we should, in a good society, receive income in accord with how long we work, how hard we work, and the onerousness of the conditions under which we work, as long as we are doing socially valued labor.

Johns prefers, though it is never made very explicit, much less seriously explored in his piece, that we instead work to our ability, and receive to our need, leaving society no need to have remunerative norms other than personal preferences. My most recent round of addressing views like these - which were put forth considerably more extensively than here - can be found in another article: "Querying Young Chomsky," at If concerns over parecon's remunerative norms and methods concern you, that might be a good additional "exchange" to view for further exploration, as the young Chomsky was a very strong advocate of the "from each, to each" position.

However, for here, as Johns accurately summarizes: "The four main planks of parecon are: Workers and consumers self managed councils, Balanced job complexes, Remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor, and Participatory planning."

Johns adds that he finds the third of these "planks" - remunerating duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor - "most problematic," "because the central plank of the communist programme has long been the abolition of wage labour." I hope readers are already a bit alarmed at the formulation that a claim is "most problematic" because it conflicts with another claim that the critic takes as "central." Johns, however, usefully explains further: "parecon … instead of abolishing wage labour proposes a "fair" way of allocating wages."

Whether parecon is wise to do this, we address below. Interestingly, Johns puts the word "fair" in quotes, but never in the essay addresses whether the parecon norm strikes him as anything other than "fair," equitable, etc. That isn't the issue for Johns. The issue for him is instead his concern that having any way of allocating income at all, other than individual's personal preferences deciding how much they work, and what they get, is problematic.

First, Johns is saying, as best I can tell, that to have a fair - and I prefer the word equitable - way of allocating income is already, transparently (he offers no argument, only the statement) to preserve "wage labor." This may be horribly confused depending on Johns precise meaning.

Wage labor, sometimes called wage slavery, is a term most often meant to cover the employment and payment of workers by owners via a system of workers selling their ability to do work for some period of time to owners who in turn extract as much actual work as they can coerce from the workers' time they have bought control over, all for maximizing owners' profits. Okay, Johns says he rejects that. Well, parecon advocates too say, we reject that. Are parecon advocates missing something that means that, no, they really are trying to preserve "wage labor," meant this way? That seems to me to perhaps be what Johns is implying, and certainly something that others have at times asserted.

In fact, however, having a way of allocating income, and thus a guiding norm for income allocation, and a means of accomplishing that norm, whether implicit or explicit, is simply unavoidable. It will exist in every society and every economy that will ever exist because in all such societies people will get a share of the social output. Of course the norms and structures for arriving at how much claim on social product different people have, can be fair, worthy, and viable, or the norms and structures can be skewed to benefit some at the expense of others, or they can even be completely unworkable.

Parecon believes its norm and methods offer a fair, worthy, viable option. Johns' mistake, assuming he believes that parecon's norm means it is preserving "wage labor" as this term is used by critics of capitalism, is to think that the mere fact that people get income - wages - means the system has wage labor, or wage slavery, as it exists under capitalism, or even just waged labor that is exploitative and alienating, as in any class divided system.

In this Johns goes beyond merely being wrong. It is quite like if someone argued that if we have production, then we have capitalism. Or if we have decision making, then we have authoritarianism. Or if we have procreation, then we have sexism. This way of arguing is depressingly widespread, but it mistakes something that we must have but which can be done either equitably or not - in our case, income allocation - for something that is both inessential and also vile, in this case owners employing what are called wage laborers or wage slaves.

The only reply I can imagine from Johns that would reveal that he does not have this particular confusion would be for him to say, wait, I don't mean parecon preserves wage slavery. Nor do I mean parecon preserves wage labor meaning capitalist labor. Nor do I even mean it preserves wage labor meaning exploitative or alienated labor - all simply because it has an allocative norm and methods for income determination. That would be silly. I just mean that parecon preserves workers getting income that is related to their work, and that is what I reject.

Well, okay, if that is what Johns means, then he is right that parecon does include that. And he would also be right if he said that it is instead possible to propose that people to get income for reasons having literally no connection to what they do in the economy, for example, they could get what they need and provide in accord with their ability. For example, the "Querying Young Chomsky" essay responds to the young Chomsky arguing just that, and a full reply to his formulation is rendered.) But a desire to disconnect income from economic activity, if it is Johns' view, isn't viable, nor I think, is it even equitable. Nor is it argued consistently, by Johns, at any rate.

Johns says he wants to look at the allocation norm from the "perspective of workers in a parecon society." Okay, that is exactly how its authors approached developing parecon. Workers options, interests, motives, conditions, etc., were always highlighted. Johns then adds, however, that he "will base [his] statements on how [he and others] respond to work as workers in the real world now." This is worrisome, to put it mildly, depending on Johns' precise meaning.

For example, to examine "workers in the real world now," as compared to examine the "perspective of workers in a parecon society" seems quite compatible, regrettably, with the confusion I mentioned above. It suggests that we can look at how wage laborers under capitalism act, and we can then predict by transferring the behavior, how workers under parecon would act, because we take as a given that workers under parecon are wage laborers quite like those under capitalism. But of course this is not actually making a case at all about parecon but is instead, making a case about wage labor as we know it now, and simply stating it applies, as well, to parecon. In other words, if this is what Johns does, it is simply continuing a horribly flawed assertion that if a system has income based on some aspect of what we do in the economy, then that system has workers with interests, motives, and behaviors like those of workers operating in capitalism. Is this what Johns does? We will see below. But to prepare, because it is quite important to understand this way of arguing in general since it appears so often in discussions of future possibilities, let's say a bit more about the approach per se.

Suppose someone said they were going to look at the merits of a proposal for real and full democracy and evaluate it by looking at how people operate in dictatorships or even in contemporary contexts like the U.S., say, and by assuming they will act the same in the new system. Or suppose someone said they were going to look at a feminist proposal for arrangements between men, women, adults, and children, and evaluate it by how men respond to women, or even how women relate to men, pr adults and children, in the current patriarchal world, including assuming the behavior would persist unchanged. There is nothing necessarily wrong with paying attention to how people act now, unless, of course, this means that one is going to assume that contemporary behavior will persist even in changed institutional settings. It is hard to imagine a libertarian communist thinking such a thing, or evaluating in such a way - given that it would obliterate prospects for any positive claims and hopes at all.

Johns asks, "so, what does rewarding effort and sacrifice mean?" And he quotes parecon literature, "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." Indeed, supposing the work is socially valued, that is indeed what the norm means.

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

Okay, this is fair enough to evaluate, of course, and if an evaluation looks closely at the morality and institutional structures and their implications for workers conditions and actions, it would step away from the more abstract tout court rejection mentioned above - but I don't understand why Johns says advocates of parecon "brush over" this. It is dealt with, explicitly, in every long presentation, and in many short ones too.

Briefly, duration is, time spent. There is nothing complex about measuring that. Intensity is most easily viewed/measured by workmates, again by looking, working with, etc., but output can certainly also be used as an indicator. Is Joe working like the rest of us, or is Joe taking extra long and frequent breaks and otherwise not exerting? Is Sally, working much harder. with agreement from people that it is okay to do so, taking up more than an average share of responsibility for output?

Whether the effort anyone puts in is socially valuable depends on it being in pursuit of outputs that are sought by society, on the one hand, and whether it is using assets effectively, on the other hand. I can't dig holes in my yard, even incredibly energetically, and even hour after hour, and even while someone is throwing stones at me making it very onerous, and claim any income for it. much less high income. No one wants the product, a hole in the ground. I also can't do some job where my abilities for the work are so limited that my doing it is a misuse of the resources, equipment, etc. - so that the time spent is not socially valued, again, but simply wasteful.

Onerousness, finally, is measured by workmates assessing job roles, again - but is actually not very important in a parecon, as compared to in capitalist economy, because a parecon also has what are called balanced job complexes, which means workers have comparably empowering overall situations, which tends to pretty much equalize onerousness, as well. But the bottom line is, who measures these things, who decides issues, who agendizes and acts regarding the workplace, is always the same, in a parecon - the workers self managing that workplace.

Johns says, "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."

Well, yes, parecon advocates offer this is one tortured possibility, in some presentations. In real life, however, we point out that there are many possibilities, including, as noted above, that we can see output, and if one claims to be working long and hard, but is generating very little, either the person is doing work they shouldn't be doing (because they are unable to do it well enough for their effort to be socially valuable) or they are lying or delusional about duration or intensity. Actually, though, the point of the "effort ratings" is that duration and intensity are actually quite easy to simply see, for the most part. A manager of huge numbers of folks can be pretty easily fooled, and workers being bossed around will reasonably want to do so. Workmates cannot be easily fooled, however, and in a parecon, in any case, overwhelmingly workers will not want to fool their workmates, in any case.

As but one example, suppose 100 of us work in a plant. It is part of parecon, has targets for production that fit the self managed participatory plan. We are all workers, there is no boss. Suppose the plan produces the output target as envisioned. The plant is then entitled to 100 times the average income in society. Now how is the income allotted among workers inside the plant? Well, if the plant workforce agreed to requests from 10 workers to work half time, say, and to some other workers to work double hard, or double time, or whatever - all to arrive at the planned output, then incomes would vary due to those differences. If not, incomes would be average for all. If you are convinced workers in a self managing plant would be trying to rip off one another, you might well feel that it could get pretty chaotic. But if not, then not. If the workers wanted to rip off the rest of society, they could all together claim to have worked way more than they did - or harder, which amounts to the same thing. The trouble is, in that case, why wasn't output higher? There is no extra income to disperse if the work did not generate socially valuable output.

Then Johns says, "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."

This seems really odd to me. Parecon is the product of "anti capitalist management consultants"? It would be awfully hard to explain, in that case, how it is that parecon is arguably the only serious economic model out there that emphasizes eliminating the class division between managers - and other coordinator class members monopolizing empowering work - and workers who are left with only subordinate and disempowering work. Without going astray, this is what balanced job complexes, another aspect of parecon, are all about. It is hard to think of an economic proposal that anyone could offer that would be more contrary to "management consultant" mindset.

Is the impact on workers of this remunerative norm, in in the parecon institutional context, considered. Of course it is - that is the point. The impact is workers do not compete with one another, they have mutually shared interests, they get equitable conditions and claims on social output, they exist without having to repress or resist others with different interests, and so on.

When Johns says "workers responses don't seem to be considered," I suspect we are back to the basic confusion. In full descriptions of parecon, and in discussions and debates about it, talks, debates, presentations, videos, the responses of workers within parecon are not only considered, they are central. Indeed, in talks one technique is to have whole audiences imagine they are a workplace, and to then explore their inclinations and motives with different institutional choices. The whole point of parecon is conceiving institutions that give to parecon's workers roles and responsibilities that not only facilitate their solidarity with one another and self management, their equity and diversity, but that by their implications for workers interests and actions literally further these values. That is the heart of parecon. So why does Johns say workers responses are not considered? The only answer I can think of, is, (a) he hasn't actually looked at serious presentations of parecon, or (b) he assumes and believes it utterly obvious that workers in parecon will behave like workers do in capitalism so since parecon's advocates don't say that, we must not have looked at all.

Johns then says, "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."

It is from this basic contradiction that many aspects of class struggle in capitalism, arise, yes.

Johns adds, "If a new economic system retains wages, there will still be this fundamental contradiction."

This, I hope by this time you will agree, is mere assertion, not argument, and is also seriously wrong.

By wages in this sentence what Johns has to mean is claims on social output. That is the real meaning of wages, per se. If I have more wages, I have more claim. If I have less wages, I have less claim. Now what norms are utilized to determine how much claim we each have is very very important, of course. If the norms pit one class against another, so that one does better if the other does worse, then, yes, there is an important contradiction which will affect "workers' responses." Of course. But what if that is not the case? What if there are no opposed classes, because there is classlessness? Then Johns having more claim on social output for reasons everyone agrees are just and fair, and I having less claim on social output also for reasons that we all agree are just and fair, does not have to mean there is a fundamental contradiction. We have to look to see. Is Johns getting more at my expense? Or at anyone's expense? Or is Johns getting his claims by the same standard that I am, a standard that we both agree is completely just. Well, parecon argues that if Johns has more claim because he agrees to work longer, or harder, or at worse conditions, and his workmates agree on the option, and if the product is socially beneficial, then that is just. And parecon argues if I get less income because I opt for more leisure, or more leisurely work, that too is just.

Johns says, "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."

This is quite simplistic but even if it were the whole story for these countries, it still wouldn't have the implication that Johns gives it. He is trying to say, look, here is a case of workers getting wages, and we know there was a class conflict as well, and - now the leap - the former must be the cause of the latter. Of course the state isn't an individual in the old USSR, any more than in the U.S. Regarding economics, it was instead a political vehicle that, regarding the economy, was overwhelmingly serving ruling class interests. In the U.S. that is a state serving capitalists. In the USSR, that was a state serving what I call the coordinator class - economic actors who had a monopoly on empowering work. Notice, also, that the norm in the USSR was to remunerate power, and the class division guaranteed the coordinator class had way more power than the working class. But the point is, you can't extrapolate workers' behaviors from a condition of class rule to a condition of classlessness.

Trying to give some credibility to the transfer of motives, Johns says, "So, what would I do if I was a worker under parecon?" This is fair enough to ask. But in Johns answer, the confusion, or obfuscation - and I will assume the former but I also have to admit I am beginning to wonder if it isn't the latter - is truly remarkable.

Johns talks very briefly about two grotesque systems - capitalism and coordinatorism - which parecon's advocates all reject and which parecon deals with at length as what is to be transcended, and he then asks, what would a worker do under parecon, clearly thinking his examples of workers resisting class rule in the U.S. and USSR also imply people's likely behavior in the absence of classes. Johns says, "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."

There is an element of truth here. It is true, for example, that in a parecon, a cheat, who in a context of mutual aid and solidarity, and of equitable distribution, nonetheless wants more than the system would legitimately provide him or her, would have, as a route to getting the extra he or she desires, three paths. The person could work longer or harder. The person could steal the extra. Or the person could try to lie about putting in more time, or intensity, or working at worse conditions - than was the case.

What assuming the last will happen utterly ignores, however, is precisely to look at the situation of workers in parecon - not in class divided prior economies, and at the interests and preferences their situation generates. When self managing their own labor, when in just conditions, when having no ruling class above, about as few people will be inclined to try to rip off society much less their workmates as are now inclined to steal ice cream cones from children. Only the somewhat or seriously pathological would see this as a good path to extra income. Okay, I quite agree that its requiring a quite perverse personality doesn't rule out everyone from trying. But Johns also ignores just how hard it would be to cheat. Could you lie, successfully, to the person who works with you, about how long your worked, or how intensely - remembering that of course not only are your actions directly visible, but also your product? And more, even if you could convince people that you worked 60 hours a week, instead of the average of thirty, let's say - when you really didn't - if your labor generated only the thirty hours of output then you are either lying, or you are, in the job you are working at, only fifty percent as productive as the average - and you would need to get new work you could do more effectively because your work was so flawed half the time you spent doing it was not socially valuable. Maybe you can convince everyone that you lack size or speed, or whatever, due to some ailment - and maybe you can somehow get them to think you are at work the sixty hours when you really are not - and so on - and get them to okay your working so long. I hope you see how silly this gets. Even so, the gains would be incredibly modest, given what a jerk you have to be, not to mention how much you would risk being considered one, and then losing your gains, too.

Johns idea that individuals would be inclined to even try to cheat, in large numbers, in equitable, collectively self managed, classless settings, is horribly reactionary, honestly, regarding human dispositions. But, even if we set that aside, it is virtually impossible to pull off such fraud in anything more than very modest degree. In fact, even my other option for enriching myself unjustly, is very very hard to benefit from. Suppose I am a master thief - and I somehow steal lots of wealth. It would have to be objects, not money, at least in a developed parecon - because money isn't free floating - but whatever it was, where would I enjoy the fruits of my thefts? Legitimate income differentials in a parecon are due to working longer, harder, or at worse conditions in ways that generate socially valued outputs, consistent with one's workmates agendas, as well. It would be quite hard, over an extended period, to earn even twice the average income. Five times would be utterly impossible. A master thief would have to enjoy the great bounty of his or her scrupulous skills in his or her own basement, because in public such wealth would be a dead give away that one was, in fact, a master thief or cheat. My comments, here, by the way, and throughout this essay, have been made in more depth and with very graphic examples, and including dealing with more interesting variants, like, say, black market production, many many times. One wonders why a serious critic would ignore all that, acting as though the parecon proposals have no accompanying exploration of such issues.

Johns moves on to another possibility. He says, "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."

Well, the confusion mentioned earlier is now absolutely in evidence. First, I would join them, if I worked there. But second, in a parecon, there is no separate management, nor owners, nor anyone else above the workforce. I would not only not join some anti social workmate who was trying to perpetrate fraud, I would try to break through the backward thinking of such a person, and, if I couldn't do that, well, I would argue against his or her excessive remuneration. But what if we all act together? What if the whole workforce tries to convince society we worked a whole lot more than we did, because we all together decide to conspire to get more income for the whole workforce in the plant that we can all share, even though we all agree that the amount we would get without cheating is equitable and treats us exactly like everyone else in the economy. We just want more, dammit and we are going to try to lie to get it. Well, it still would not work. Because the work that gets remunerated has to be socially desirable. If Johns and I worked in some kind of plant, and we along with all our workmates said we worked twice as hard and twice as long as average - either our plant has that much additional output - in that case four times as much - or we lied, or all that extra time and effort was worthless - not socially desirable, and not worthy of remuneration.

Johns says, revealing not only a pretty jaundiced view of working people - that parecon's workers would behave, and not just some of them, but essentially the whole workforce, as he says he would, and this even in an equitable economy, even with self management, even without class rule, etc. He says: "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." Even supposing whole workforces were eager to try and trick not bosses, not owners, not a domineering coordinator class, but other workers just like themselves, into giving them unfair allotments, again it just wouldn't work. The output, as noted above, denies the claim. We can't work 15 hours a week, as a group, and claim to have worked 30, because we don't have thirty hours output.

Johns says, "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."

In other words, parecon is contrary to the interests of elites who maintain current systems and can be won only in a likely long and certainly difficult struggle. Well, I agree, of course. As to what precisely it will take to win, and what path or paths will lead to implementing participatory economies, we just don't know, of course - but a long hard struggle, sure.

Johns adds that, "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."

Seriously? After struggling for a new, equitable, self managing, classless economy, what Johns thinks is that in it, to implement equitable remuneration, means spying on one another, etc. Well, I admit that this is a point various parecon advocates do wonder about. To what extent, in a parecon, with equitable remuneration, would there be tight, or very loose accounting of duration, intensity, and onerousness, and how precisely would workers implement their arrangements? For the latter, however they choose. That is what self management means. For the former, however, I think, for example, that whatever roads lead to its implementation, in a parecon, at least after it has operated for a time, most folks will decide that fraud is a relatively small issue and the need for close attention to claims about duration and intensity is relatively slight, and even the number of levels of remuneration that ought to exist is quite low - as in, say, way over average (meaning perhaps 20% over), over average (meaning 10% over), average, under average (meaning 10% below), and way under average (meaning 20% below). Others might think the range of incomes folks should be entitled to earn should be wider and the precision of them more accurate. Different workplaces might opt for different arrangements. But the main point is, different workers, and different firms and industries, can opt, via self management, for different approaches in their own workplaces ways of measuring and allotting income for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor.

Johns quotes in his article, a part of one sentence from pareconish texts - that is it - and I have to say, I wonder how much more than that he has read. The issues that concern Johns are all addressed, literally all of them, all over the perecon literature. Maybe if he read a full discussion Johns would still have issues, fair enough, but at least his issues would then be issues with parecon itself - with its institutions and their implications - rather than with capitalism and centrally planned "socialism" transported as if they somehow apply as well to a completely different system - and at least they would move beyond an instant reaction, to real consideration.

Johns says, "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 minimize the amount of work and effort which would have to be done."

This kind of thinking pattern is totally warranted and reasonable to ask about - and of course we do, in our own presentations. What is not reasonable, I feel, is to take serious proposals, such as those for parecon, read a little bit, maybe in some description, maybe in what someone else says about it, and decide the proposals must be horrible because they are not what one has previously oneself advocated, lib com's central plank that is violated, remember, and then simply shoot away, not bothering to look at what the proposals actually have to say about the issues you are raising.

In fact, in parecon there is every interest, for every citizen, in developing technology that reduces the onerousness of labor and increases output per effort expended - other things such as environmental impact taken into account too, of course. The former, reducing onerousness of labor, improves the quality of balanced job complexes - and derivatively the quality of work, for everyone. The latter, increasing output per effort expended, either increases what every gets for an unchanged level of work in society, or reduces how much we all have to work to get the same as we are used to. And there are no adverse effects from innovations on people's incomes. Why? Because, over time, jobs alter and are balanced, innovations spreading since there are no copyrights, etc.

Could we imagine a case like Johns has in mind? In some plant some smart worker comes up with an innovation. It doesn't require investment and receipt of lots of new equipment - which would be visible in the plan. Instead, it is some very clever change, lets say, in how the work is actually done, which increases output per hour dramatically with no required purchase of new equipment. Our firm can now produce the amount the plan specified - what is socially beneficial, in half the time we could do it last year. We look around and say let's cheat. Everyone is on board. Let's tell society there has been no change, keep the insight for ourselves - so other firms in the same industry still function the old way and benefits are robbed from everyone in society.

Okay, now what? We go to work each day - let's say, for 8 hours, let's four days a week. We get done with our work, however, due to the clever change that we keep secret, each day in four hours. Whoops. If we close down the plant at noon, everyone sees, and there goes the fraud. If we all go home, same thing. So we literally have to stay in the workplace, but not work - working would leave us with too much output, and the innovation would be implemented everywhere. Okay, this is just one example, and even without having the most modest oversight, and even assuming anti social motivations from an entire workforce that enjoys a social setting that produces sociality, and yet, still, it is very hard to seriously benefit. Suppose Johns is right that people would do this - and their benefit would be that they spend four hours each day in the workplace playing cards. What would it take to prevent it. How about a job in the economy which is to research workplace effectivity…by visiting. Done. But truly, there is no point in us now trying to figure out every variant structure people in the future might opt for. Future workers will decide their own paths. There is point in our determining a set of core institutions that are workable, viable, and that would generate not anti social attitudes, like those Johns claims he would manifest, but solidarity and mutual aid; not domination and subordination, but self management; not class division and class rule, but classlessness.

Johns now goes back to individuals saying "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." Indeed, under capitalism you might. The actual truth is, in the real world, however, there is less of this than there ought to be. I agree with Johns it not only makes sense, under capitalism, but it is morally warranted to act in ways that redistribute income from profits to wages. It doesn't happen enough, but I think for understandable reasons. Society says that to act that way is to cheat, to be fraudulent - and most people just don't want to be cheaters or frauds, even if the label is unwarranted. But in parecon, in any event, there are no profits. The social product goes entirely to the population, not disproportionately to an elite above the population. We all work average hours, at average intensity, at comparable jobs, and we all get an equal share - or we deviate from equal shares if some work longer, others less long, and so on, all happening within workplaces that are okay with it, and in ways that are socially desirable in terms of output.

Johns says - now taking up another point that is addressed over and over in pareconish presentations - that "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 truth is, Johns either hasn't read, or has totally forgot what he did read, beyond the most cursory content about parecon. If I had to bet, I would bet that he read some other critic, maybe in libcom itself, but not, say the book Parecon. And this is being nice to Johns, honestly. Because if Johns did read the book, then this whole article is incredibly intellectually dishonest. Of course parecon recognizes such matters. The broad norm is, if you can't work, or can only work some, your income is average anyhow, and you medical needs are met freely, in any case, of course. Whoops. Johns might now say - oh, great, I have another way to cheat. I can make believe I am sick...

Johns adds, "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 this is an observation he thinks we must have missed? Johns essay is about pareconish remuneration - my guess is that there is no presentation of pareconish remuneration that doesn't at the outset of the discussion, arrive at the norm of remunerating duration, intensity, and onerousness, precisely by taking into account these matters that he says parecon ignores. People are not remunerated for output, which is what market socialists would claim to favor, not least because the types of differences Johns points to would in that case mean people would have different output despite working the same duration and intensity. As to my liking some work conditions Johns might not like, and vice versa - that is not what parecon is talking about regarding onerousness. When we apply for jobs we all want ones that we like more, not less, given who we are. That is fine. If in a workplace there is some horrible task that pops up, then yes, it is pretty likely that the volunteers to do it will be those for whom it is personally less horrific. But parecon uses the social valuation, not the personal taste of the person doing the task as its measure. And yes, that does mean a masochist might benefit, supposing he or she wanted to take more income for something he or she enjoyed - but, of course, he or she might take less income for it, as a masochist, of course. And in a work place workers could account for such mattes, or not. In the economy as a whole, it is just so minimal an issue that it isn't part of the centrally defining matters of a classless economy. What makes something onerous in the centrally defining account is its attributes - it is unsafe, say, or it is horribly boring, or whatever. If Johns like something more than I do, that's fine, he should look for such options as his work. I might think being a doctor would be horrific - onerous beyond belief and Johns might love what it involves. But those who opt to be doctors for equitable remuneration will think quite differently than me. Will parecon have perfect valuations of the onerousness of all work. No. It is a social determination. Will there be fair valuations? Yes.

Johns says, "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? Parecon, the book, gives every example, every case, that Johns offers, and many that are richer, I think. But what I think is most important about his essay is not even whether he is right or wrong about certain points, but, honestly, that he pays very nearly zero attention to what is said within presentations of parecon. This is what I mean by he has either not read any of the longer presentations, or he has read them and has no reason to reject what is said in them bearing on his concerns and so makes believe nothing is said. After all, parecon simply must be rejected because it violates what Johns thinks is a main plank of his viewpoint, and therefore must be wrong.

Then Johns says, "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…"

What Johns is saying is that in a classless situation, with self management, he and everyone will prefer to be anti social brutes, trying to rip off everyone else by fraud, and happy to make believe their capacities are less than they really are - and will also easily get away with it. Fair enough. If everyone is inclined to treat their equals the way some - not most - now treat their bosses - then parecon would have the problem Johns raises. Not intractable, but real. Parecon would then have to create a context where it was very hard to get away with such nonsense. Take his example, if Johns is going to fool me, and he works with me, and he is indeed going tool all the others he works with too, then he will have to play the role of being permanently ill if that is his claim, or whatever else means he has less capacity than he really does have. But now notice something. When he works next to me, he has to display this diminished capacity - not greater capacity. So he has to work, for say, eight hours and have the output match the diminished capacity. He can't work for four hours, do it all, and go home. In short, he now accomplishes nothing by lying. He does not get higher income per hour than he would have by being honest. The rest of what Johns offered would actually merely mean he should not work inside, nor ever want to be inside in the vicinity of those he works with - or outside, as the case may be - and notice, again, he gains nothing by this silliness and loses a good part of his life - or, if he claims both, then he has to be suicidal, I guess, constantly bashed by his every locale. This is all quite ridiculous, honestly.

But the heart of the matter, again, is Johns sad and defeatist slight of hand - that typically is the exact opposite of the mindset of libertarian communists - which the libcom site represents, I believe. That is, the formulation that everyone will try to fuck over everyone else in a good society, merely because they get incomes - which is true in any society - even as they do in a rotten, classist, market system.

Johns says, "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." Suppose that was true - which I think in fact it is a large exaggeration of this one factor - it is even in that case amazing to me that Johns doesn't realize, apparently, that what he is saying, which is that as bad as things are, anywhere, is what they must be, everywhere, always. If in the Soviet Union and the U.S. workers try to finagle greater income and less work to whatever degree they can get away with, than that will be true, too, in a parecon, and, I should think, in any system - or else, why in a parecon?

And here is the incredible punchline. Suppose we take Johns at face value. We assume he really feels all this after serious assessment, and that if he hasn't paid much attention to what he is critiquing it is only because he read someone who led him to believe there was no need, because it was so transparently dumb, or something like that. Libcom, and probably Johns, thinks that what we should really favor for remuneration in a good society is that each person should work the amount they choose to, and consume as much as they wish to. This is what the young Chomsky argued, as well. But there is a big difference. The young Chomsky had an optimistic view of workers' motives and inclinations. Johns has a pessimistic one. I reject this norm of from each to each because the assumption that people will try to be and especially that they will manage to be humane, caring, and equitable in their free and completely unmediated choices neglects to notice that they have no way of knowing what choices would in fact be humane, caring, and equitable, or instead, excessive, or unduly harsh on themselves. But Johns to be consistent, has to reject his remunerative norm on different grounds. He has to reject it because he believes people are out for themselves and worried, even in a classless economy with mutually agreed norms that apply to all, as long as there are claims on social output and work to be done, that someone might get more than they, or work less than they, so they need to cheat, or they just want to. Well, in his economy, the truth is, they don't even have to cheat. All they have to do is increase what they request and diminish the amount they work, which is what Johns repeatedly says they will try to do even against social norms, much less in accord with them, however they choose. John thinks people will be self seeking without limit against shared social norms, against their workmates, against the rest of society, and risking repercussions, in a parecon. But all of a sudden, he thinks that with just this new norm, people can take as much as they want and work as little as they want, people won't behave anti socially even though there is no cost to doing so, thereby obliterating his entire prior stance in a flash.

Johns says, "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." Well, what can I say? Johns makes no effort to take seriously a proposal for a different way to operate an economy. He ignores almost everything written about it. He ignores answers to the very points he raises, whole chapters, for example, in the book parecon, devoted to addressing his concerns. He thinks it is okay for him to favor, instead, what is in fact a ridiculously impossible norm, from each according to ability to each according to according to need, which not only requires that people want to be equitable and just, which when it suits him, he denies, but also that they magically know what behavior is in fact equitable and just - not to mention other difficulties, but it is not okay, indeed it is scifi nerdish, for someone to think seriously about a set of institutions - intentionally quite minimalist - which can actually establish conditions of equity, self management, classlessness, etc. I guess about all this, we can just agree to disagree.

Johns then says, "But like many politicos their mistake is rooted in their ideas being based on how better to manage capital."

What? Really? Advocates or parecon are just interests in "how better to manage capital"? Not in classlessness? Not in self management? Not in solidarity? This is a kind of scare tactic. Assert it, and the damage to what you don't like is done - it is branded soft on capital. There is no need for actual substance. In fact, parecon not only gets rid of private ownership, it gets rid of coordinator class versus working class distinctions too - there is neither capital to manage above workers, nor surpluses to manage above workers. There is, instead, the energy and talents and wisdom of working people to apply to get outputs that are desired and to share them among people in equitable ways.

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

I have no idea what Johns even thinks he means by this. I would be curious to find out. Work, which is producing socially valuable outputs, is not the same as my taking a bath, washing a floor, raising a child, playing a game, dancing, and so on. If all these latter activities are distinct things we can talk about, then so is work. And work, in context of talking about an economic vision for how to handle production, consumption, and allocation in a classless way while delivering self management, solidarity, diversity, and equity, is putting one's abilities to use to generate outputs that will benefit others in society, as one expects those others to do, as well, including to one's own benefit.

Johns then adds, "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."

It really is incredible that Johns thinks this constitutes serious analysis. Everything but what he favors must be capitalism in disguise. Somehow it seems that Johns thinks that if we simply say everyone can have anything they say they need, and can do any amount they say they want to do - suddenly everyone will not only behave wonderfully by internal inclination, but also will know quite well what actions constitute behaving wonderfully. While I think a great many more people than Johns believes when it suits him to dismiss parecon's equitable remuneration. would, in fact, want to behave sensibly and ethically, I also think - among other problems having to do with misallocation of resources, etc. - that with his preferred approach, no one would know what behaving wonderfully requires, not to mention society not being able to discern what directions investment should take, etc.

A far deeper and more serious discussion of Johns' concerns, and some that are related to his, appears in the essay noted at the outset, Querying Young Chomsky, but that is still only an essay. A look at a book might be more worthy of a critic.

Johns' punchline - "So in short if we want something workable our choice is one of full communism, or none at all." As above, I am also not sure what he means. If he means a good economy must have no remunerative norm - impossible - or must have his favored one - well, I guess we have to agree to disagree about that. If he means to have a classless economy we must have a classless economy - and that means we must not have institutions that generate class division and class rule - I agree.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Apr 19 2012 11:16

It is unfortunate that Albert should be given this extended response in a separate thread as much of the criticism has continued on the other thread where the fundamental disagreement between communists and pareconists is explored.

This lenghy piece makes some valid criticism of aspects of steven's separate contribution but in fact the real differences lie with the arguments about the nature, practicality and desireability or otherwise of the individualised remuneration system proposed by pareconists (and the underlying assumptions behind their approach) rather than any issues about 'democratic control' where both pareconists and anarchists share a good deal of common ground (but also tendencies to fetishise democracy as such). Albert addresses some of this in his linked 'querying young chomsky' which unfortunately would need to be rolled up into any sensible further response to him.

pareconists get so much time spent on their views I suppose because of the link I previously mentioned with various past (and frankly either plain wrong or outdated) ideas about the nature of a transition to communism but of course pareconist are not interested in such a transition since they are fundamentally opposed to the whole communist project which they explicitly reject as 'utopian'.

Apr 19 2012 12:05
Spikymike wrote: fact the real differences lie with the arguments about the nature, practicality and desireability or otherwise of the individualised remuneration system proposed by pareconists (and the underlying assumptions behind their approach)...

Yeah, I agree that there is much being left unsaid, regarding 'underlying assumptions'.

But these are at the basis of both views, and it would be helpful to spell out some of the philosophical axioms of both Parecon and Libertarian Communism.

Of course, the initial stage, though, is to recognise that we all have 'assumptions' behind our political positions. My previous attempts to 'bring to the surface' these 'assumptions' have not proved to be very fruitful. Let's see if we can take forward this important task, and reveal what's often behind these debates.

Michael Albert
Apr 19 2012 12:11

I became aware and so replied - but I haven't gone through the array of comments, hoping to relate in a more complete manner. You indicate their are points that have been raised I haven't addressed. Okay, can someone generate a summary, or even complete collection of such points? If so, I will certainly try to reply. If not, I will try to go through the give and take under the original essay...but given all other responsibilities, I may fail at that...

Apr 19 2012 12:26
Michael Albert wrote:
Briefly, duration is, time spent. There is nothing complex about measuring that. Intensity is most easily viewed/measured by workmates, again by looking, working with, etc., but output can certainly also be used as an indicator. Is Joe working like the rest of us, or is Joe taking extra long and frequent breaks and otherwise not exerting? Is Sally, working much harder. with agreement from people that it is okay to do so, taking up more than an average share of responsibility for output?

Michael, could you outline why you think 'intensity', 'output', 'exertion' and/or 'share of responsibility' should be 'measured'?

I mean 'measure' in the sense of 'the individual product of a worker', rather than 'measure' in the sense of a simple 'count of what's been collectively produced'.

Mike Harman
Apr 19 2012 15:19
Spikymike wrote:
It is unfortunate that Albert should be given this extended response in a separate thread as much of the criticism has continued on the other thread where the fundamental disagreement between communists and pareconists is explored.

Yeah I expected the response to the response to happen here, but it hasn't, bit late to change it back now though I think.

Andre Guimond
Apr 19 2012 18:28
LBird wrote:
Michael Albert wrote:
Briefly, duration is, time spent. There is nothing complex about measuring that. Intensity is most easily viewed/measured by workmates, again by looking, working with, etc., but output can certainly also be used as an indicator. Is Joe working like the rest of us, or is Joe taking extra long and frequent breaks and otherwise not exerting? Is Sally, working much harder. with agreement from people that it is okay to do so, taking up more than an average share of responsibility for output?

Michael, could you outline why you think 'intensity', 'output', 'exertion' and/or 'share of responsibility' should be 'measured'?

I mean 'measure' in the sense of 'the individual product of a worker', rather than 'measure' in the sense of a simple 'count of what's been collectively produced'.

Your first question might be broken into two parts, 1) Why remunerate intensity/output/exertion (effort and sacrifice) rather than, say, output or property? and 2) Why measure it?

The short answer to why rewarding effort/sacrifice is desirable is because it's the only thing truly within our power to control, and thus remunerating people for how long and hard they work, and how difficult the work conditions are, is both just and provides effective incentives for work. Rewarding output isn't fair since you and I have very little control (almost zero) over how strong we are, how beautiful our voices are, how tall we are, etc., and so it's ineffective to reward for output since we can't become taller or force our voices to be more desirable to society, no matter how much reward we're offered, and our natural abilities and properties play a large role in the amount and quality of output we produce. Rewarding property is just ridiculous, and I'll assume we all agree on that, so no need to talk about it. On the other hand, it does make sense, and it is fair, to give people a bigger piece of the pie if they work harder, or longer, or at a shittier job. That much seems obvious.

As for "why measure", I assume that you were more concerned about the justification for "why reward effort/sacrifice" rather than another norm, and the answer to "why measure" seems so blatantly obvious that I won't say much on that. I'll just say that "measure" is perhaps a bit too precise a term... if you sit down with your workmates to decide if everybody's efforts deserve an "A" rating, or "A-", or "B+", etc., just for example, I really doubt anyone is going to pull out a log book and start needling their coworkers for working X hard on one day but Y hard on another day. Instead, maybe work hours would be recorded (and where that work was done, ie. in the blast furnace or in the office), but since you'd all be working together, everyone would be pretty well aware of how hard everyone else worked, so you'd probably just talk it out and agree on everybody's rough effort rating. I suspect, considering the level of congeniality and solidarity and equity that would be core features of any participatory society, that everybody would just kind of take the average income/credits/whatever, and workplace councils would really only adjust incomes for people who clearly worked more/less hours, or clearly in better/worse conditions, just to be fair.

Anyway, the long answer to both of those questions is best found in the book Parecon by Michael Albert. You can read the section relevant to remuneration here:

Hopefully that also kind of answered your second question about measuring individual product/output. But to be clear, remuneration in a participatory economy, as I understand it, would not measure "the individual product of a worker," as discussed above, although of course you would have to measure "what's been collectively produced" (as well as the inputs that went into those products), but mostly for purposes of allocation, ie. to know how much of each input/output was used/produced, whether outputs fill consumer/producer requests, what's needed for the next round of planning and production, etc.

I don't want to go too deep into it, and I'm sure Michael can answer all of this a lot better than I can, but I'd definitely suggest reading the book linked above. It would probably answer most of your questions.

Apr 19 2012 19:05
Andre Guimond wrote:
On the other hand, it does make sense, and it is fair, to give people a bigger piece of the pie if they work harder, or longer, or at a shittier job. That much seems obvious.

'Hardness', 'length' and 'shittiness', in your scheme, have to be 'measured'.

Why? Because it...

Andre Guimond wrote: both just and provides effective incentives for work

Why is it 'just' to reward an individual's ability to work long, hard and at a shitty job?

What is your 'measure' of 'justice'? Why should the unit of 'work' be the 'individual'? Why should work need 'incentives'?

It's not 'obvious' to a Communist.

I think that there are philosophical assumptions which have not yet been exposed behind both the Parecon and the Communist stances on these issues.

Apr 20 2012 15:11

In the interests of linking the two discussion threads and in the light of Albert's requests to read their other material, I think ajj's blog mentioned on that thread provides some good responses to a number of these issues which communists have with parecon and it's underlying assumptions see: search under 'parecon'

I have my own criticism of some of ajj's other spgb notions but he does a good job with this in my opinion.

Apr 23 2012 19:53

I've now written a full response to Michael's reply here: