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Response to Albert

R. Burke

First off I want to apologize to my fellow Green Social Thought editorial board members for any misunderstandings caused by my use of the editorial ‘we’ in my previous article Why We Don’t Support Parecon. Since my name was the only one listed as author I did not stop to think that my poor choice of words would lead readers to think that I was speaking for the entire editorial board. I sincerely beg your pardon for this. The criticisms expressed in that article are mine alone.

Second I would like to thank Michael Albert for publishing my article and his response on Z-Net. I was surprised that my article got as much attention as it has. Mr. Albert is right to point out that I avoided critiquing specific elements of parecon, but it also misses the point of my article.

Third I want to make it clear that I speak as a disappointed former supporter of parecon. My fellow editorial board members will remember that 10 years ago, at the Surviving Climate Change conference held here in St Louis, I spoke rather passionately in favor of the model against David Schweikart, a well-known opponent of it. Since then doubts I had became amplified for reasons that may become evident below. I was forced to reconsider my support.

Actually in my article I wasn't completely dismissing parecon. If you read between the lines I was saying it might turn out to be everything Albert and Hahnel say it is, but that not enough evidence has been provided for me to say with any confidence one way or another. What I did was to fling down the gauntlet to see if Mr. Albert can give us something more substantial than mere arguments. I will be very disappointed if Mr. Albert is unable to provide some corroborating evidence, because then that means parecon is simply an interesting thought experiment, but nothing more than that. Carl Sagan once said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." I have always found this questionable, since it implies a double standard whereby claims that fit the established view are given less scrutiny than claims that challenge it. However claiming to have found a way to completely dispense with markets is a pretty big claim. Shouldn't there be some corroborating evidence?

Here is what I mean by corroborating evidence. In the introduction to The Political Economy of Participatory Economics we find the following: "In chapter 6 we suggest computer simulations and social experiments that could substantiate the feasibility of participatory economics [1]. Have these computer simulations been run, did others replicate them, where can I find these results? What about the social experiments mentioned, where are they, how successful? I was sincerely hoping Mr. Albert would overwhelm me with exactly this kind of evidence, which would allow me to concede that the case for parecon is stronger than I thought.

Part of the reason I became disillusioned by parecon was because of my reading “Part 5: Theory and Practice: Institutions and Movement Building” in Real Utopia: Participatory Economics for the 21st Century, edited by Chris Spannos. In it three enterprises are mentioned that attempted to put parecon into practice, or at least those portions that could be put into practice in a single enterprise. None of them states that they were successful at creating balanced work complexes and payment according to effort and sacrifice, though great efforts were clearly made. These are supposed to be pillars of parecon. I will quote from the relevant articles.

Regarding the Mondragon Bookstore and Café in Winnipeg, and balanced work complexes: “but in practice it has been incredibly difficult to achieve that elusive, pure, and equitable “balanced job complex-particularly in areas that require greater levels of skill and training.”[2] Regarding payment for sacrifice and effort: “Paying people equal pay for equal effort would involve holding one’s coworkers accountable for say, getting things done at agreed-upon times. It would involve more systematic judgment and evaluation of effort on and off shift, than actually happens at Mondragon, precisely because many are reluctant to do so”[3]

Regarding the Newstandard, an on-line publication, and balanced work complexes; “At TNS we didn’t have the time to get very scientific about it and we also needed each staffer to work on things she was good at”[4]“when we divided up the work, we tried to make sure that each staffer was assigned roughly the same hours of each kind of work. It didn’t always come out equal, but we tried to address inequities by rotating tasks when possible and assigning new or temporary tasks according to who was low on certain types of work.”[5] I will note that rotating tasks is not the same thing as a balanced work complex. Regarding payment for effort and sacrifice: “All full time staff members were paid the same salary regardless of seniority. Though we started off having to receive pay in the form of “sweat equity,” by the end we were paying $21,000 per year, a living wage in most of the cities from which we worked.”[6] I will note that equality of pay is not payment according to sacrifice and effort.

The enterprise that seems to have come closest to realizing parecon norms was South End Press. In regard to payment for sacrifice and effort: “Salary Equalization, with provisos for assistance for those with dependents, special needs, or pegged to extreme effort” [7]. I again note that equality of wages is not exactly the same as payment for sacrifice and effort.  “Extreme effort” is not defined. Assistance for those with dependents or special needs, while admirable, is nowhere mentioned as a principle of parecon.

Regarding balanced work complexes: “Other jobs, like phone answering, chairing meetings, opening mail, cataloguing incoming manuscripts and cleaning the office were rotated on a monthly or weekly basis. The results of this arrangement of tasks would be we hoped, that everyone would have a relatively balanced job complex…” (italics mine). [8]

Rather than achieving balanced work complexes or payment according to effort and sacrifice, what we actually find is heavy reliance on rotation of tasks and equality of wages or salaries. In the literature of parecon neither do I find balanced work complexes defined as simple rotation of tasks, nor payment according to effort and sacrifice defined as simple equality of payment. It might be pointed out that no objective criteria are ever spelled out for what makes a work complex “balanced.” Just how do I measure sacrifice and effort? These pillars of parecon seem to be elusive in reality for people who are ideologically motivated to achieve it. What happens with people who are not so ideologically motivated, and who are simply trying to make a living?  Can we expect an entire society to maintain a high degree of ideological mobilization over an indefinite period of time? It is not that I disagree with the norms parecon promotes as ethical ideals; it is simply that as principles of a functioning economy they seem like vague criteria that are never actually met.

At the time of publishing, one of these enterprises, the Newstandard had gone out of business. Another, South End Press, has recently also gone out of business. I find that this does not inspire confidence. After all I am judging by the kinds of examples Albert and Hahnel themselves say could substantiate their claims! I also note that when pressed for evidence to substantiate his claims, Mr. Albert did not even attempt to refer to the material in Real Utopia: Participatory Economics for the 21st Century. This suggests to me that he himself finds the evidence unconvincing. For an extraordinary claim I find little to no evidence.

As a result I sought out Pat Devine’s Democracy and Economic Planning, which I had found out about in Michael Albert’s Stop the Killing Train. [9] His model of participatory planning through negotiated cooperation impressed me. The work seemed to have a strong empirical basis. He was able to show that some form of participatory planning had actually been used in Britain during the Second World War, [10] and that the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) was actually using a limited form in Japan, though he is also critical of the lack of participation by workers and consumers. [11] These are forms of planning that were deployed on a national scale. Many of the positive features that are found in parecon are found in Devine’s model, including full social ownership of the means of production [12] The major difference being that he does not claim to abolish market exchange, but rather market forces [13]. His proposal for the abolition of the social division of labor, with its five categories of activity seems to be more precise, and attainable, than balanced work complexes. [14] This is not the proper place for an examination of Democracy and Economic Planning. I reviewed it favorably in Green Social Thought’s predecessor, Synthesis/Regeneration (Participatory Planning S/R 53, Fall 2010).

This is how it stands in my view: participatory economics, or parecon, is a fascinating, tantalizing thought experiment, but I can’t say with any confidence that it is something that can function in actual world. I earnestly wish that Albert and Hahnel could provide me with the substantiation that they promised readers back when The Political Economy of Participatory Economics was published in 1991, some 27 years ago.

That is almost the entire time I was employed as an art teacher in the St. Louis Public Schools until I retired in 2017. In 1991 we were told that corroborating evidence was forthcoming. In 2018 we are told that corroborating evidence is unnecessary. This is disappointing and unconvincing.

I still hold out hope that someday they will be able to provide this evidence and change my mind. This is why I threw the gauntlet down in Why We Don’t Support Parecon, though again I am surprised that Mr. Albert actually noticed and responded to my article. Unfortunately I found his response disappointing, since he seems to admit that there is no way of providing evidence to back up his claims. Thus I am currently disillusioned by parecon, and find alternative models, such as that advanced by Pat Devine to be more convincing. Given a choice between a rational argument, and a rational argument based on evidence, I will choose the latter.


[1] Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, The Political Economy of Participatory Economics, Princeton University Press, 1991 page 5

[2] Paul Burrows in Chris Spannos editor, Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21st Century, AK Press, 2008, page 283.

[3] Burrows in Ibid, page 294

[4] Jessica Azulay in Ibid, page 307

[5] Azulay in Ibid, page 307

[6] Azulay in Ibid, page 310

[7] Lydia Sargent in in Ibid, page 267

[8] Sargent in Ibid page 267

[9] Michael Albert, Stop the Killing Train, South End Press, 1994, pages 157-158 and 162-163

[10] Pat Devine, Democracy and Economic Planning; the Political Economy of a Self-Governing Society, Polity Press, 1988 pages 21-34

[11] Ibid, pages48-53

[12] Ibid, page 150-152

[13] Ibid, page 23

[14] Ibid, page 162-185