Social Ecology and Participatory Economics (2)

Hi Michael,

Thanks for your two thorough responses. I’m going to try to reply to each of them individually, despite the thematic overlap, though I’m sure I’ll miss some important issues. You asked:

“Are you saying there is no place in politics for representatives deliberating and voting, by some algorithm, even with recall, challenges, and so on — so that all decisions must be by referendum?”

Direct democracy works precisely by negating the need for representation of this sort. The point of social ecology’s emphasis on local assemblies is that they offer an opportunity for people to manage their affairs directly and collectively, instead of entrusting this task to representatives. Referenda, on the other hand, can be a cumbersome instrument for cooperative decision-making; they sometimes make for an atomized and isolated process and do not easily allow for deliberation. This doesn’t mean that social ecologists foresee no role for referenda at the confederal level or for recallable and mandated delegates to confederal bodies; it means that such mechanisms should be outgrowths of the directly democratic local assemblies, rather than substitutes for them. This distinction is central to our conception of participatory democracy.

“what voting procedure do the assemblies utilize?”

That’s up to the assembly members, but it seems to me that a reasonable starting point is a simple majority procedure. In fact I’m not sure how another process could be chosen without initially relying on a majoritarian format. I am skeptical toward requirements for supermajorities as well as proportional weighted voting schemes. The former strike me as functionally equivalent to minority rule, and the latter beg the question of who decides on the operational details and how. I don’t think that simple majority procedures solve all the problems of how to democratically reconcile conflicting wills, but I do think they are generally preferable to the alternatives.

“Are assemblies courts, as well as legislative bodies?”

Not usually. Social ecologists draw an important distinction between policy-making and administration. Policy-making, the ‘legislative’ function, is what assemblies do. Administering those policies is the task of smaller bodies, including both temporary committees convened for a specific purpose as well as standing commissions responsible for particular areas. In both cases we argue for choosing members by sortition (that is, at random) and for regular rotation. Adjudicating disputes and contending with socially destructive behavior would normally be matters of administration, I would think, but appeal to the full assembly would always be an option.

“I assume you don’t think that a neighborhood assembly should decide whether I have an outdoor barbecue in my backyard tomorrow night, or if I must instead eat indoors.”

Barring exceptional circumstances, such as an extended drought and consequent high fire danger, you’re right, I don’t think this. Assemblies decide public policy; they do not dictate private behavior.

“I wonder why social ecology thinks a geographically defined assembly should be the primary site for making a decision about a workplace, instead of the workers in that workplace?”

That depends on the nature of the decision. If the decision concerns an internal matter within the workplace, it presumably falls outside the purview of the assembly. Citizen assemblies are not meant to dispossess workers of control over the operations of their workplace. If the decision involves an important aspect of the community’s economic policy, on the other hand, then the assembly – including the workers at this particular workplace – ought to address the matter. An example of the former type of decision might include the layout of a bakery, the distribution of tasks among the bakers, or the length and tempo of their workday, whereas how much bread the bakery is expected to produce over the next three months is a question of policy and hence a matter for the assembly.

“Why should neighborhood assemblies decide the procedures that go on in workplaces without workers there ever meeting as such, voting as such?”

They shouldn’t. First, unless the procedures in question fundamentally affect the community’s broader economic policy, they are decided by the workers directly, not by the full assembly. Second, even if these procedures are deemed a matter of public policy, the workers will still meet and vote on them in their workplace before bringing the question to the full assembly. Assemblies are hardly the only place where deliberation and decision-making take place; they are simply the final arbiter on issues of public policy, including economic policy. They do indeed decide “what quantities” of a particular item are to be produced, but they do not decide “what each person consumes”.

“Most people’s main justification for impacting your work situation, who don’t work with you, that is, will be the extent to which they will be using what you produce or affected by its by-products, and most such people are unlikely to even be in your local assembly.”

On the contrary, this would be quite likely in the scenario I outlined. Partly for ecological reasons, partly for democratic reasons, and partly for the sake of variety and diversity, social ecologists want to reduce the scale of much current production (and, for that matter, phase out quite a bit of it entirely), such that our neighbors will indeed produce much of what we use every day.

“whoever makes decisions will need proper valuations of the implications of alternative choices on workers, on consumers, and on the environment.”

Yes, assembly members will need exactly this sort of information. I don’t think you and I disagree much on that score; I think our difference is over who decides and how. In any case, it isn’t strictly true that social ecologists have not addressed this question, but we certainly haven’t given it nearly as much detailed attention as you and Robin Hahnel have. I think that an assembly framework could accommodate parecon methods for assessing the social benefits of products and the social costs of inputs, and something like your conception of indicative prices would probably play a role in formulating community-wide budgets and other aspects of economic policy. Much of the evaluative work and number-crunching that you assign to iteration facilitation boards is the sort of thing that social ecologists recommend putting in the hands of administrative panels. It seems to me that the informational requirements of an assembly-based model are not significantly different from those of a council-based model, and the techniques for meeting these requirements could be similar under both models. Do you disagree?

“Rotation is a wrong solution, I think, to the problem of fixed hierarchies.”

I think we’re talking past each other on this point. What I had in mind with my proposal for “a continual voluntary rotation of jobs, tasks, and responsibilities” is more or less the same thing as your notion of balanced job complexes, as I understand it. In fact you and Hahnel used the term “job rotation” to describe a similar phenomenon in earlier versions of parecon (e.g. Socialist Visions p. 259, or Socialism Today and Tomorrow pp. 294-8). I suppose we could argue about the specific form balanced job complexes might take, but I think we agree on the substantive idea.

“one of our large differences may be that social ecology ignores the need for an economy to have means to establish the relative value of all the different uses to which assets can be put, if people are to choose among those uses.”

We don’t ignore this need, but you’re right that we don’t have a whole lot to say about it. We recognize that opportunity costs exist in any economy; we simply haven’t developed detailed proposals for how to incorporate them into communal decision making. As I envision things, much of an assembly’s attention to economic issues would occur in the form of budget proposals embodying different priorities for investment, consumption, and so forth. Assembly members would discuss the relative merits of each proposal and work toward a combined proposal which could garner the support of the most members. As in parecon, these proposals would rely on data from prior years, as well as estimates of future needs, and would include both quantitative and qualitative comparisons of the various options under consideration.

“How do we know how much to seek such that we don’t ask for more (or less) than the amount it is appropriate for us to receive?”

I think those are two questions wrapped into one: the first concerning estimates of aggregate consumption, the second concerning personal consumption choices. On the first question, total consumption of every category of goods will obviously be a central variable in any proposal for broad economic policy brought before the assembly. Since assembly members know that they have to produce the goods they hope to consume, and since each main proposal will be accompanied by detailed information on its various impacts and analyses of its ramifications, assembly members will be able to form their own opinions on the desirability of each palette of options, and then collectively debate which ones make the most sense for the community as a whole. If I think there wasn’t nearly enough cheese available during the last budget cycle, then I can argue for giving dairy production a higher priority.
On the second question, under a libertarian communist system everybody knows how much of a given item is available within their local community and can judge their personal consumption accordingly. Yes, we do expect people to be able to make such judgements responsibly, on the whole. But even more than that, social ecologists harbor a forthrightly utopian goal as part of our long-term vision for a liberated society. We want to move beyond merely articulating needs – collective or personal – toward actively and deliberately shaping our needs. We want to suffuse needs, economic and otherwise, with conscious choice. In Marx’s terms, we want to eventually move from the realm of necessity toward the realm of freedom, even in our daily lives, even while collectively creating and enjoying social wealth. I think that a communist distribution system holds the possibility of one day realizing this goal, while a system of determinate remuneration makes it much more difficult.

“An allocation system needs to hear, in some manner, what people want to consume and what they want to do at work, so that it can determine the relative values of economic options and so actors can then make decisions in light of those relative values. To ignore all this, and say only that people will get what they need, seems to me to dodges economic reality.”

Agreed. Social ecology doesn’t ignore these matters, and I’m not sure you and I even disagree very much about determining the relative values of economic options. We disagree about the best forum for people to choose from among these options, as well as about how distribution of consumer goods is to be organized.

“I just don’t think saying that local assemblies are going to be deciding economic outcomes offers a serious explanation of how these fine values are to be attained while also orienting production to meet needs and fulfill potentials.”

I’d say this is an open question; we don’t have enough practical experience with either of our respective visions to give a definitive answer yet. But it isn’t clear to me why you think that assemblies are structurally incapable of deciding economic outcomes, if that is in fact what you’re getting at. You seem to be saying that the same group of people (namely, all the workers and consumers in a given locality, in your terms) will be able to decide economic outcomes and orient production if they do so via the mechanism of councils, but not if they do so via the mechanism of assemblies. I think this boils down to our basic disagreement over economic roles and structures within a liberated society: you want us to make such decisions in our capacity as workers and consumers, in the context of specifically economic institutions. I want us to be able to transcend our roles as workers and consumers, when it comes to making choices about community-wide policy, and I want us to integrate economic functions into a broader project of collective self-management, of communal direct democracy.

Peter Staudenmaier

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