Social Ecology and Participatory Economics (4)

Hi Michael,

I’m not sure what to make of your complaint that I have skipped some central matters. I can’t possibly reply to every point in your posts, of course, but I thought I had covered the main ones. In several cases you say I’ve ignored issues that I have, in fact, discussed at length in this exchange; and in other cases you claim that social ecologists are silent on questions that we have, in fact, addressed repeatedly in our published works. A number of these latter questions are discussed in the book you reviewed three years ago, Janet Biehl’s The Politics of Social Ecology, and many others are examined in writings by Murray Bookchin, Chaia Heller, Dan Chodorkoff, Cindy Milstein, Brian Tokar, and other social ecologists. Interested readers of our exchange can consult the on-line library at the Institute for Social Ecology website.

On two crucial points, however, I think you are largely correct. First, you’re right that I haven’t given much attention in this exchange to what you call ‘political’ matters. That’s because my understanding of our debate was that it is supposed to focus on economic issues; I think I was asked to participate in this forum because I’m a social ecologist who has followed parecon’s development fairly closely, and I’m interested in exploring the areas of convergence and divergence between the two approaches. Second, you’re right that social ecology’s vision of the inner workings of a future free society is considerably less detailed and concrete, in several respects, than parecon’s vision. In part that’s because social ecologists are still vigorously debating the particulars of our vision. But even aside from that, I think that a certain degree of ‘vagueness’ can be a virtue, not a defect, in discussions like this one. It seems to me that what you and I want to do is provoke focused and informed disputation about the possible contours of a liberated world, not provide finished blueprints for such a world. Some of the questions you’ve raised are, to my mind, likely to remain open questions for some time, so our speculations about them are necessarily limited and provisional.
In other words, I don’t know how much more I have to say about the concerns you’ve brought up, but let’s give it one more try. You wrote:

“Concerning social ecology’s economic vision, again in summary of my reaction so far, it seems to say that though workers will oversee their direct relations in workplaces, and consumers in their daily life consumption, the same geographically defined assemblies as undergird politics will make all larger economic decisions — where for social ecology larger seems to mean decisions that set the general context and that impact large numbers of people.”

Yes, that’s pretty much accurate.

“But there is a contradiction in this, as well as problems seeing how it is to be done. If the local assemblies decide quantities produced by each workplace, as you say they do, how can you then say workers inside workplaces will decide how long they work? How long they will work, and indeed every decision they take, will be hugely impacted by how much they are to produce. If they don’t provide information regarding the latter including their preferences and conditions and deliberate on that issue and cast their ballots on it, so to speak, then saying that they make their own decisions bearing on their own circumstances is just false, it seems to me.”

That isn’t an objection against an assembly-based model. In both a parecon framework and a social ecology framework, each workplace takes part in a process of negotiation which eventually yields a production goal. The difference between our two proposals concerns the forum for this process of negotiation: general assembly or network of interlinked councils.

“Workplaces affect the whole country. Consumers get items from all over the country. Social ecology seems to presume that economic life is mostly at the level of small geographic units”

Yes, that is one of the provisos in the scenario I outlined. It is certainly true that basic manufacturing spans “the whole country” (indeed the whole world) today, but there is no economic reason why this must be the case, and there are several political and ecological reasons for considering a less far-flung approach to production. One of the least appealing elements of your theory, in my eyes, is its postulation of an integrated economy on the scale of the existing United States. Parecon accepts this aspect of current economic reality, while social ecology would like to alter it in the direction of regional and local economies, as far as basic production is concerned, without falling into a myopic insistence on reduced scale or self-reliance for its own sake.

“this approach includes no means by which we can know what limits are appropriate”

Yes, it does. Through simple record-keeping, everybody knows how much of a given item is available at a given time, as well as how much was consumed during the previous cycle, and so forth. You and I disagree about what “appropriate” means in this context (because we disagree about how to determine what individuals “deserve”), but we don’t disagree on the information required.

“social ecology seems to me to “assume a can opener” regarding economics.”

No, we assume the ability to act intelligently and responsibly and to devote collective attention to varying needs and potentials. This is not substantially different from what parecon assumes. I think you harbor these suspicions toward social ecology because we haven’t yet produced a detailed economic vision, but that is not at all the same thing as simply wishing away difficult economic questions.

“I don’t understand why it takes this tack, given that parecon is fully consistent with what seem to be social ecology’s underlying principled aims and parecon assumes nearly nothing but, instead, offers full institutions and careful arguments for how they work.”

That’s why I endorse a number of parecon’s institutions and arguments and would like to see them incorporated into a confederal and communalist framework. But despite this potential for creative synthesis between our two traditions, it is not the case that our underlying principles are “fully consistent”; there are definitely important philosophical topics on which you and I simply disagree. For example:

“In the piece you rejoined (in this social ecology part of our exchange) my first question was: “Does [social ecology] therefore [say] that people should to the extent possible impact decisions in proportion to the degree they are affected by those decisions? If not, please tell me why. If it does mean that, we agree.” I wish you had answered that query and I am still interesting in knowing very explicitly.”

I did answer this query, explicitly and in considerable detail. No, I do not agree with your proportionality principle. I think that people affected by a decision should impact the decision equally.

“What norm regarding participation and decision making is guiding for you, if not this one?”

As I’ve said in previous rounds in our exchange, two norms are guiding for me: inclusion and equality. I’m not sure why you find this hard to believe, since this position has a lengthy history within the tradition of participatory democracy. That in itself doesn’t make it preferable to your norm, of course, but it’s not as if I invented this crazy notion out of thin air. Carol Pateman puts it this way in Participation and Democratic Theory: “in the participatory theory ‘participation’ refers to (equal) participation in the making of decisions, and ‘political equality’ refers to equality of power in determining the outcome of decisions” (p. 43).

“Do majorities get their way irrespective of the impact on minorities (going back to the issues of proportionate say raised above)?”

I think you’re using “minority” in two very different senses. The minority in any given decision are simply those people whose views did not prevail; they are by no means necessarily impacted disproportionately by the decision. Indeed the contrary is frequently the case. Social ecology strongly emphasizes minority rights, such as the right of faction and tendency, both before and after controversial decisions. Our commitment to effective dissent is one reason why we’re skeptical toward some ‘unitary’ models of democratic process.

“Do you reject markets? Central planning?”

Yes, of course.

“Does each and every assembly decide how much every workplace is going to produce? How do they manage to get a mesh between inputs and outputs? How does each assembly manage to come up with the same results as every other for each workplace? Does the assembly only decide on workplaces in their region? If so, again, how does what is decided here match with what is decided by some other assembly, elsewhere, when the units rely on each other for inputs, say?”

Each assembly establishes the production goal for the workplaces within its boundaries, with other nearby assemblies participating at the confederal level when appropriate. When inputs are required from other locales, direct trade can be arranged through the larger confederal networks to which each assembly belongs. This does not require considering “worker and consumer preferences from all over the country,” unless you assume a single bicycle factory supplying the entire country, which we do not (for that matter, we don’t foresee the continued existence of “countries” as such, but that’s another story…). It does require reconciling worker and consumer preferences from the municipalities directly involved, which is one of the further advantages of confederation. I know you want to hear more detail on how this is to be done, but there simply isn’t a specifically social ecologist answer to that question, and my own answer is to adopt parecon-like methods where that’s possible. I think this sort of sketchiness is similar to parecon’s own sketchiness regarding international trade, for example.

“In social ecology’s formulation, this time around, it sounds like assemblies are a kind of final resort, though other structures deliberate and raise preferences as well.”

Yes, that’s the general idea. But assemblies are also, in a sense, a first resort; they are the pre-eminent place where everybody can think comprehensively and collectively about economic options and debate them fully. I think that kind of holistic perspective is much more difficult to attain in a council model.

“I don’t see any mechanism that permits social ecology’s geographic assemblies to amass relevant information”

I haven’t described such mechanisms because I am happy to adopt yours, with the exceptions I have already noted in previous posts.

“I think social ecology could say, parecon is fine. That’s the economy. Parecon not only accomplishes economic functions consistent with social ecology’s priority values, it generates participatory inclinations consistent with social ecology’s political aspirations.”

I do say something along these lines (though social ecologists do not unanimously agree with me by any means), but there are a number of instances in which I think parecon’s proposals are not consistent with social ecology’s values, as I have tried to explain. Aside from those instances, and a few others I raised in our exchange three years ago but have not repeated here, I remain basically sympathetic to parecon’s overall approach to democratic planning. I find it much more promising than Pat Devine’s “negotiated coordination” model, for example, and I even prefer it in several significant respects to Takis Fotopoulos’s “inclusive democracy” model, which is inspired in part by libertarian municipalism. I can’t say without qualification that “parecon is fine”, but I do think chunks of it are headed in the right direction and could help flesh out social ecology’s economic prospects.

“I don’t want to discuss all that in a state assembly with millions of people, or in any single place, for that matter.”

In social ecologists’ usage, assemblies are always local. There is no such thing as a state assembly or an assembly with millions of people. But we do think that one of the virtues of assemblies is precisely that they offer a “single place” to consider public policy in an integrated way – not just economic policy, but all the communal decisions that are interwoven with economic choices.

“What I want is a means of having appropriate information and deliberative options for each level of concern and consumption, individual and collective, and a flexible way to arrive at choices, which, of course, all impact one another and the choices other people make.”

Sounds good to me; I think the difference is that I want “each level of concern” to be addressed simultaneously and in light of the other levels, to the extent possible, so that people can take into account the various interconnections among economic, political, and other choices. I want people to be able to review these choices as a whole, collectively, in a setting that is not of a purely economic nature, so that the focus is not on consumption as such or production as such or even the junction of the two, but rather on community-wide social and ecological priorities that transcend the economic realm.

“consumer councils are quite like different levels of geographic assemblies.”

That’s true only in an abstract sense. The two bodies are conceived in very different ways and follow very different logics. The Argentine neighborhood assemblies, to choose a recent example, or the free municipalities of Chiapas, are much more than mere collections of consumers. What they pursue goes well beyond arranging the consumption of goods and services. You might even say that such bodies are built on an implicit rejection of ‘consumer’ status.

“But as to the production side, I most certainly do not want to try to represent my workplace views in a geographic assembly in which I am not conversing with my workmates and not interacting in the process along with them, deciding our joint views, and not then negotiating with the consumers of our products.”

Why not? Because you’re worried that your workplace’s particular concerns will get lost in the shuffle? I think that’s a reasonable worry, but it seems to me that a solid system of internal workplace democracy would go a long way toward preventing this sort of thing. On the other hand, part of the point of an assembly model is to avoid enterprise egoism, where workers in one shop place more emphasis on their workplace’s particular needs and wishes than on the general needs and wishes of the community it is part of.

“And, finally, you can’t simply assume the data needed for good choices, you have to have a means for it to arise in practice.”

I still don’t think we disagree that much on data generation and presentation. In the assembly model I outlined, this could work much as in parecon, with the exception of individual consumption proposals, which would be absorbed into collective consumption proposals.

“even ignoring that there are a few hundred thousand products in a developed economy (many of which are consumed only by workplaces) and you are suggesting that each one of them is individually discussed — for any one of them how do I in fact have any idea at all what the total output will or should be?”

Because they are all classified into manageable categories, as in parecon, and compiled into overall plan proposals, as in parecon, along with analyses of the qualitative and quantitative implications, as in parecon.

“I can’t make any kind of judgment about that unless I have information about what the producers of that output think about their new conditions and workload, and what every potential consumer of it would like”

I disagree with the second claim. All you need to know is what the combined potential consumers would like, in aggregate. This is not a fanciful notion in the physically decentralized and humanly scaled sphere of production which social ecologists envision.

“I think we may not be far apart in aspirations, but you are intent on a particular geographically based structure for reasons that have nothing to do with economics, I think, but only politics, and it seems to me to be interfering with arriving at workable economic ideas.”

That’s partly true, not least because you and I disagree about what “workable economic ideas” are. But the fact that the structure I have proposed is “geographically based” is hardly its distinguishing characteristic; what is important is that it is community-based, that is, that the entire local community decides on the contours of their economic activities in a deliberately ‘political’ fashion.

“No one knows any such thing before an allocation system has arrived at such results. You can’t assume we know it before we deliberate about it.”

Yes, obviously. Distribution happens after deliberation. I don’t see what you’re getting at here.

“How do I know what the total amount of apples available will be?”

Because the folks who work in the orchard have proposed a range of harvesting goals, and they and you and your fellow citizens have agreed on some target within that range as part of your broader discussion of food production. But we were talking about distribution, not planning; you know how many apples are actually available at a given moment by checking with the orchard or with the folks who work at the fruit outlet, who can also tell you how many apples your neighbors have already taken as well as how many more apples, or pears, or plums, are expected to arrive and when. There are any number of possible variations on this scenario, and each of them constitutes an allocation system, not the absence of an allocation system.

“And do they only come from my little neighborhood?”

Possibly, or from another neighborhood within your municipality or elsewhere within your region.

“What if apples don’t grow in my climate? Do I then get none?”

Perhaps, or your assembly or confederation can arrange to trade with an apple-growing region. Social ecologists aren’t the kind of localists or bioregionalists who frown on long-distance economic cooperation as such; confederation and mutualism are essential values for us. Personally I think it would be grand to live in a post-capitalist society near the Great Lakes and still get mangos once in a while, but I don’t see the need to structure this into a proposed allocation system which is quite a ways from implementation. I think most such questions will end up being tackled in practice by people whose experiences and aspirations are quite different from ours, and whatever we recommend today is sure to be reworked and revised by them in light of the intervening historical development.

“That is what allocation settles on. You can’t assume that we know these things before the fact.”

I don’t assume this. I don’t disagree with you on the need to assess social costs and benefits, and I find several of parecon’s allocation mechanisms useful and potentially worthwhile. What we disagree on is how to arrange distribution of final goods, of personal consumer items. I think you’re saying that my proposal makes valuation impossible, but it seems to me that your real complaint is that I reject the notion of tying individual consumption to individual effort.

“What you seem to be saying is that if we decide our incomes in terms of all qualitative human concerns, like say happiness and fulfillment, etc., rather than in terms of any “determinate” norm like effort and sacrifice, we are operating more humanely. Perhaps that is so, but it doesn’t provide an argument that we could do it, successfully, in a society, without employing any more “determinative” norm as part of the process.”

I don’t know whether we could in fact do this successfully, but it isn’t a priori impossible and I’m not ready to chuck the idea out the window just yet. Quite a few of the figures who have influenced both you and me flatly rejected differential individual remuneration. Here is Castoriadis, for example: “There will be no socialist revolution unless from the first day it instaurates absolute equality of wages and incomes of all sorts, for this is the sole means by which the question of resource allocation will be removed once and for all, genuine social protest will be given the means to express itself without distortion, and the Homo economicus mentality that is consubstantial with capitalist institutions will be destroyed.” (Cornelius Castoriadis, Political and Social Writings vol. I p. 20)

“I think, again, parecon is an economic system, with no assumed can openers (I hope), that social ecologists should find congenial.”

Some of us do find it congenial. But as I have tried to point out, we are hardly alone in rejecting various aspects of it. This partial rejection is not based on misunderstanding or on lack of appreciation for the efforts you and Robin Hahnel have devoted to the project; it is based on real differences over substantive issues as well as on markedly divergent ways of thinking about a free future for humanity and the planet.

“I don’t see why the same reasoning doesn’t lead you to see the efficacy, indeed primacy, of people meeting about economics decisions — little and big — not only where they live, but also where they work.”

I do see the efficacy of this in many situations; it’s the “primacy” part, regarding “big” decisions, that I deny.

“Now let’s take the decision about how much my workplace is going to produce. Well, what are the variables? On the one side our equipment and conditions and how much the workers want to work as well as how many of us there are. We know best about these things, as well as about the product and its virtues and faults, for that matter.”

I disagree. The virtues and faults of the product, and how much total social labor is allocated to its production, are not the sort of thing that the current workforce can “know best”. These are social decisions that involve the general interests of the whole community; they are not the special province of those immediately engaged in the manufacturing process.

“In social ecology, workers would have to send information to assemblies — but to which assemblies is totally unclear, presumably all of them, each of which would decide the outputs and somehow all these decisions would match — and would then get back instructions. I think this is authoritarian in the same respect as is central planning, as well as (ironically) less viable.”

That’s illogical. In parecon, workers send information to industry federations and to an anonymous computerized planning procedure, which eventually results in ‘instructions’ which the workers themselves have helped shape and define. This mutual negotiation is not authoritarian and is nothing like central planning. In social ecology the very same process occurs, with assemblies taking the place of industry federations and the anonymous computerized planning procedure. This mutual negotiation is not authoritarian and is nothing like central planning. To hold otherwise is to condemn parecon itself, unless you believe that grassroots assemblies alone constitute an authoritarian menace. Moreover, parecon’s approach is considerably more “central” in this respect than social ecology’s is, since workers must engage in a planning procedure in which people with whom they have no direct contact whatsoever predominate, and since faraway industry federations retain decisive control over a number of crucial questions. Social ecology’s proposals for decentralized production and direct democracy don’t fit the typical profile of authoritarian central planning, to say the least.

“The workers in each plant can’t possibly have appropriate input into their plant’s operations if the large contextual decisions are taken in some assembly (which one?) without the workers form the plant acting together as a main participant with a whole lot of impact in that decision, as compared to being scattered in the assembly and having no more say than people who don’t even work in their plant.”

That sentence makes sense under your conception of “appropriate input”, but this conception is exactly what I dispute. The sentence makes no sense at all in a system which wants to subordinate production to social and ecological criteria determined by the community as a whole. The “large contextual decisions” are precisely the sort of decisions in which “the workers in each plant” should not have more say than “people who don’t even work in their plant.”

“I hope social ecology arrives at a political vision that I can adopt, to go with parecon.”

Aye, there’s the rub. You’re looking for somebody who can do for ‘the polity’ what you and Hahnel have done for ‘the economy’. But social ecology means something qualitatively different by “politics”, and as a consequence it can’t and won’t fulfill your expectations. For social ecology, confederally affiliated direct democracy is politics, and economics is simply one aspect of communal self-management. Along with Polanyi and other economists and historians, we reject the bifurcation of ‘economic’ and ‘political’ spheres as a legacy of capitalism. We want to dismantle and transform much of the economic infrastructure which parecon assumes will continue. We want ‘production’ to become the mediation of social and ecological potentials, and ‘consumption’ to become the conscious and collective selection of needs. All of these things make social ecology an unlikely candidate for the sort of “political vision” you’re hoping for. But without minimizing these fundamental differences, I nevertheless think that within the broader array of radical ideals and reconstructive visions, social ecology and participatory economics have much in common, and I still think that each tradition can learn a lot from the other. I would be pleased if this exchange has served to further that learning process.

Peter Staudenmaier

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