Social Ecology and Participatory Economics (1)

Response to Michael Albert, Summarizing Participatory Economics

(The following exchange, four essays in all, took place in 2002 as a joint debate organized by the Institute for Social Ecology, beginning with introductory statements by Michael Albert on participatory economics or ‘parecon’ and by me on economics in a social-ecological society. The four essays here are my successive replies to Albert.)

I’m pleased to see the degree of compatibility and overlap between the economic vision outlined by Michael Albert and the proposals for a liberated society put forward by social ecologists. Both of our theories point toward emancipatory and directly democratic alternatives to the structures that currently dominate human communities and the planet. We both oppose market mechanisms, private ownership of wealth, and hierarchical relations of production, and we both seek practical forms of self-management and participatory planning in place of capitalist exploitation and authoritarian central planning. I continue to think that parecon and social ecology’s political theory of libertarian municipalism complement one another in a number of significant ways.
In Albert’s summary, the five essential elements of parecon are: “workplace and consumer councils, self managing decision making procedures, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning.” Many social ecologists agree with several of these points (such as balanced job complexes) while rejecting others (such as remuneration for effort). Perhaps the most interesting differences center on the themes of self-managed decision making and participatory planning, where we agree in principle but disagree on how to realize these ideas. For purposes of this discussion, I’d like to focus on four questions that seem to me to reflect the principal contrasts between our two approaches: the institutional framework best suited to collective self-management (resident assemblies or worker and consumer councils); the most sensible implementation of participatory democracy (proportionality or equality); the distributive principle most appropriate to a free society (communism or remuneration for effort); and the relationship between economics and politics within libertarian and egalitarian communities.

1. Councils and assemblies. I agree with Albert that workers’ councils have an important role to play in the operation of a genuinely democratic and participatory economy. People who work in a particular establishment generally have a better grasp of the priorities, peculiarities, potentials and pitfalls of that workplace than people who have never worked there. In addition, people who work together in a given enterprise develop a collective sense of which practices and goals are reasonable and efficient for their workplace. This sort of hands-on knowledge and experience is essential to the functioning of a non-hierarchical economy.
Where social ecologists part ways with proponents of parecon is on the question of formulating economic policy. Unlike Albert, I think that the primary forum for deliberating about and deciding on the broad outlines of economic planning is the full assembly of all members of the community, rather than worker and consumer councils. Social ecology warns against reducing the complexity of our public lives to our roles as producers and consumers, and proposes instead that we establish the basic contours of communal economic affairs in our capacity as citizens. By “citizens” we mean not members of a nation or subjects of a state but all the residents of a local community. We think that citizenship promotes a more comprehensive, sustainable, and ecologically nuanced perspective on economic questions than the partial and restricted viewpoint of a single workplace or household.
In an assembly-based model, all workers and consumers are encouraged to articulate their distinctive experiences, desires, and opinions, just as they are under parecon; but they are encouraged to do so as citizens, with a view toward the wellbeing of the whole community and its natural surroundings. Once the full assembly has decided on a general economic policy, the particulars of implementation and administration are left up to smaller bodies such as workplace councils and cooperative consumer associations, so that directly democratic self-management suffuses all levels of public life.
In addition to this difference over the most suitable institutional framework for participatory planning, social ecologists disagree with parecon on the related matter of scale and scope. While Albert’s scenario foresees a unified economic plan covering many disparate communities across large geographic areas, social ecology’s primary focus is on local communities generating economic policies tailored to their own social and ecological circumstances. When necessary, economic interactions between local communities can be coordinated through confederal bodies on a case-by-case basis.

2. Proportionality and political equality. I agree with Albert that participatory democracy requires that all actors are “empowered equally” and that nobody has “greater decision making power” than others involved in the same project. We disagree fundamentally, however, on how this democratic principle is to be implemented. Albert believes that people should influence public decisions “in proportion as they are affected by the decisions under consideration”. I think that this stipulation violates the basic democratic imperative of equal decision-making power for all participants. Our disagreement reflects a longstanding division among theorists and practitioners of direct democracy, and it raises complex questions about the relationship between procedures and outcomes. For the sake of clarity and brevity I will merely summarize my objections to Albert’s position.
The proportionality principle, in my view, requires that participants in a given decision-making process agree on the various anticipated effects of a decision before they can make that decision, as well as predicting how these effects will be distributed once the decision is made. In other words, Albert’s model assumes that anticipated impact can be measured and meaningfully assigned to particular actors or groups before the fact, so that those who are likely to be more significantly affected by a decision have more formal power over the decision itself. I think this is not only impractical but undesirable; it is an attempt to structure preferred outcomes into the process of decision-making, which in my view ought to remain neutral regarding outcomes.
In contrast to Albert’s approach, I think that participatory democracy works best when the related norms of inclusion and equality are both respected. Inclusion means that everybody who is affected by a decision participates in making the decision, and equality means that all participants meet on an equal basis, with everyone having the same formal power. The heart of direct democracy is discussion and deliberation, and this is the proper place for disparate impacts to be taken into consideration, rather than trying to build them into the formal decision-making procedures. However, while I consider this point to be an important difference between our two perspectives, I suspect that in practice Albert’s model and my model would converge much of the time. The specific mechanisms which a free society will use to manage its own affairs are not for us to decide, of course, but debates of this kind can help to illuminate the challenges involved.

3. Communism and remuneration for effort. In parecon, “people are remunerated for the effort they expend”, although some special needs are “socially met” and those unable to work are guaranteed an “average income”. Albert conceives of this effort criterion as an alternative to capitalist values, but I think that it actually recuperates a decisive element of capitalism’s logic. Indeed I think this distributive maxim contradicts several of parecon’s other core values. Participatory economics is built around the recognition that production and consumption are social processes, not individual affairs. Why should personal expenditure of effort entail greater personal consumption within an otherwise thoroughly socialized system?
Instead of remuneration for effort, social ecologists propose libertarian communism as the eventual goal of a free society. Albert rejects this approach to distributing social wealth as unfeasible, but I think this dismissal is too hasty. Like all economic systems, communism recognizes that total consumption is limited by total production, but it does not assume the predominance of private material interest or of generalized scarcity; it sees these phenomena as a legacy of capitalism and hierarchical society. Social ecology foresees the potential for all community members to articulate their own needs and desires in a responsible fashion, shaped by their experience of participatory self-management, as part of a social process guided by reason and an ethos of mutual aid and interdependence.
But will people actually work if they can take whatever they want from the common goods regardless of how much they contributed to producing them? If the history of experiments in libertarian communism is a reliable indicator, then the honest answer is: probably, but it depends on the institutional and ethical context. In a communist society, the incentive to work would be exactly what it is today, in those few situations where coercion is not omnipresent – the desire to create useful things and live comfortably with one’s neighbors. As long as we are envisioning a fully developed free society which realizes the finest aspirations of our history of struggles for human fulfillment and against privation and oppression, it would be imprudent to abandon the ideal of libertarian communism as part of a possible future.

4. Economics and politics. Albert’s scenario describes the economy and the polity as two separate spheres with differing functions, and proposes that economic matters be dealt with by specifically economic institutions made up of workers and consumers. Social ecology’s communalist approach argues, in contrast, for re-integrating economic affairs into public life as part of a comprehensively democratic model of citizenship. This practice of collective self-management is what social ecologists call ‘politics’, which we see as the very negation of statist forms of legislation, adjudication, and administration. We share Albert’s goal of “a cooperative self-managing negotiation of collective well-being”, but disagree on the appropriate role of economic structures within this process.
I think that the separation of economics and politics is a consequence of capitalism, and that a democratic post-capitalist social order will need to transcend this artificial separation. Production and consumption should be seen as means, not as ends in themselves. The ends are for free people to determine, in recognition of social potentials and ecological parameters. The structures and methods of economics ought to be subordinate to these social objectives and values, as one component of a broader communal direct democracy. From the perspective of social ecology, economics is to be absorbed into politics.

I hope that these comments will help clarify the points of commonality and divergence between participatory economics and social ecology. While debate on the fine points of our respective reconstructive visions may seem frivolous in a time of urgent activist challenges, it is a necessary contribution to the practical and conceptual renewal of the revolutionary project. In dialogue with other radical and emancipatory traditions, both of our perspectives can help to cultivate, refine, expand and strengthen the capacity to conceive of and struggle for a free world that is worth living in.

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