Parecon and Spain

Interview published on Zcommunications (Source: La Diagonal), by Michael Albert and David Marty, September 22, 2011.

… Critics have said that parecon’s new remuneration system, combined with balanced job complexes, would kill the incentives that drive talented people to produce the things that we want and need. How do you address that argument?  

  • An incentive means you are provided with a gain to if you do something, thus motivating you to do it. Okay, suppose I pay you income for the value of your output. Do you then have motivation to be born with a better voice, or with better reflexes, or with greater calculating talent? No, that is nonsense, clearly. There is no incentive effect on our underlying genetic endowment. The part of our labor that we can affect, by our choices, is how long we work, how hard we work, and, if need be, our putting up with bad conditions. And these are the things that parecon’s equitable remuneration gives us an incentive for, as it ought to, even as it also retains fairness and justice in remuneration.
  • The critic’s counter argument says, if you pay for duration, intensity, and onerousness alone – then a surgeon will earn less than a short order cook who works longer, harder, and under worse conditions – and thus no one will want to go through medical school and internship to be a surgeon. We will have equity, yes, but we will all die for want of medical care. Also, if you have people who are capable of being surgeons but instead spend a lot of time cleaning up, you are wasting their training and underutilizing their capacities. That is horribly inefficient.
  • The answers are actually quite simple. First, it is false that to induce someone to do surgery, you have to pay them 20 times what you pay a short order cook. That is an outrageous lie repeated so many times that people come to parrot it, without thinking about its meaning. Surgeons, doctors, and other members of the coordinator class, earn high incomes due to having great bargaining power, largely from keeping down the number of surgeons and other coordinator class members. To see that paying them excessively is not necessary consider what happens if you take any student and you say, okay, a surgeon now earns $600,000 a year, a short order cook earns $30,000 a year. Imagine you were are planning to become a surgeon. I am going to start lowering the final salary you will earn. I want you to tell me when you will avoid college and instead head over to MacDonalds to work at the grill, avoid medical school and instead swelter at MacDonalds, avoid internship becoming ever more adept at flipping those burgers, all so that you can then spend another thirty years piling up your burger tally instead of being a surgeon at too low a wage. Then you start dropping the salary and asking this student at each new level, okay, are you ready to forego college and medical school? $500,000, $400,000? Try it. Typically you will get to $30,000, and the student will waver, but then ask, wait, how little can I possibly live on? And no one is the slightest surprised, yet ten minutes earlier everyone parroted the mantra that no one would be a surgeon for lower wages.
  • What the experiment reveals is a larger material incentive, all other things equal, is required to get someone to be a short order cook, not to get someone to be a surgeon. And this is pretty obvious, once you think on it, and certainly if you do the experiment. What current society does is preclude most people from access to any kind of empowering work, they cannot bid down the wage. So it turns out that with equitable remuneration we not only get equity – we also get a sound incentive system.
  • But what about the second concern? If we train someone to do surgery, and then we have that person spend some time cleaning bedpans, it is certainly true that during the time they are cleaning the bedpans they are not as productive as they might be if they were doing surgery. And likewise, if we train 20% of the population to do empowering tasks, and we then have all those folks spend some time doing disempowering tasks, then during the latter time they are very likely not as productive. So, yes, we are losing some output from those who might have done only empowering work, by their doing a fair share of disempowering work. Indeed, suppose we switch to parecon and all current doctors spend half their time not doctoring. Then compared to now, in a hypothetical overnight transition to parecon, we would lose half our doctoring. That would be a calamity – or so it seems. However, what if we took it just a tiny bit further.
  • We might ask, for example, what are we losing now by un-educating 80% of the workforce to be passive and to endure boredom and take orders? What do we lose by smashing the creativity and initiative they innately possess?
  • In switching to parecon, we lose, hypothetically, half of our doctoring by the folks who would have been full time doctors in the old system. Correct. However, we then get all that back, and quite a lot more, in new doctoring that is done by people who would have been only rote workers, but who are now, in parecon, instead doctors as well as doing some rote work in their balanced job complex. We gain much more, as well, classlessness, self management, equity, etc.
  • But, the critic says, people who are now just doing rote labor don’t have the capacity to provide the needed quality labor… which is, of course, just the classist error, or rationalization, analogous to and equally wrong as the sexist error or rationalization was for women not being able to doctor a few decades ago.
  • Parecon doesn’t seek to be the most productive possible system – it seeks to deliver self management and solidarity and equity – classlessness – and to produce items to meet real needs and to develop real potentials. Yet, even so, it turns out that it actually has far better economic incentives and far better utilization of human talents and capacities than current economies.

The kind of economic system where we live right now is very far from what you describe. So, why should people bother with participatory economics? Aren’t we busy enough trying to restore some sort of social democracy that would provide relief for so many before we can talk of Parecon? What does participatory economics have to offer in the short term?

  • It is true that we are highly unlikely to literally win parecon tomorrow. But we can move toward a classless economy rather than moving toward a result we won’t like – as progressive people often have in the past. And we can understand our current plight better, having parecon in mind as a goal, as well. There are many parts to even a quick answer to why we should be concerned about having shared vision.

Why should people who are trying to alleviate the worst ills of any past unjust system – slavery, apartheid, patriarchy – and similarly capitalism – also have on their agenda a whole new system in which those ills no longer plague us at all, and therefore no longer need to be alleviated because they are gone?

  • First, because that is the goal we ought to be seeking. While alleviating the pains of slavery, or apartheid, or patriarchy, or capitalism short of replacing these with better systems is understandable and warranted as an immediate aim – surely the longer term goal is new systems. And second, when we do try to win better results in the present, short of winning a new system, we ought to do it in ways that lead forward, not ways that lead in circles or backward, and this entails knowing our longer term goals so that we can raise consciousness about them, raise desires for them, and even win gains that point toward them.
  • But the even larger reason, at least in my experience, is for morale, for hope. A huge obstacle in the way of people participating in any kind of sustained effort at change is doubt about the efficacy of doing so. People feel there is no better alternative than what we now endure, so fighting for one is a fool’s errand. Little gains will eventually just disappear, so why try to win them? Vision is needed, then, not only for the understanding and guidance it can provide, but as a country to a defeatist and suicidal view that nothing better is possible.

What would you say to those in the activist community that work hard to fight racism, sexism, poverty, war, etc.? Why should they have an interest in Parecon? Many in Spain would say that the real problem is politicians, others will say it is the environment… //

… (full long Interview text).

(This interview was conducted by David Marty for the Spanish Newspaper and web site La Diagonal.  It will appear there shortly, once translated. The interview is in preparation for a trip to the UK and then Spain, next month, following upon Greece and Turkey, earlier this month on Michael Albert).

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