Postcapitalism debate #3: the third exchange between Yanis Varoufakis and Michael Albert

Michael Albert and Yanis Varoufakis, members of mέta’s Advisory Board, take part on an ongoing debate on how a postcapitalism worth striving for could look like. Here is their latest exchange; the whole discussion, to be constantly updated and enriched, is to be found here.

Michael Albert’s third response:

5. Your Freedom Is A Condition for My Freedom, and Vice Versa

Michael Albert, 27 December 2021

Yanis, self-management doesn’t mean Tom can’t do things that impact others. It only means everyone should influence decisions in proportion as they are affected. For self-management an affected group that decides some issue may be a whole council, a team, or even an individual. For different issues, self-management may need more or less deliberation and require different ways to tally preferences into decisions. You ask who will determine what decision-making methods and procedures workplaces use. The workers council, of course.

Make telegraph machines no one wants? Make wheels for vehicles no one drives? Consume all you want oblivious to what others want and to the size of the social product? No society can allow each person to decide these sorts of things on their own. So how do we make sure everyone gets a say proportional to how decisions affect them? If just you are affected, you decide. If just a group is affected, the group decides. And decision-makers always use procedures that best convey proportionate say.

So of course Harriet decides what job Harriet wants to do. But how? Harriet’s workers council assesses workplace tasks and apportions them into jobs balanced for empowerment. Harriet applies for a job she likes. If Harriet is ill-equipped for her preferred job, Harriet’s council won’t accept her application because her working at that job would be socially irresponsible. So, yes, Harriet chooses her job, but she chooses it from among jobs the workplace offers that she can do well.

Do you really think Harriet should instead “pursue projects without anyone’s permission”? That would imply that Harriet can utilize resources, inputs, and tools however she pleases. She need not be competent. She need not fit the environment of her workplace. She can waste tools, time, and space making telegraph machines no one wants. She can produce wheels for vehicles no one has. And what about other people with other ideas for how to use the tools, time, and space Harriet would be commandeering? I wonder, do we differ about how to combine individual freedom and creativity for each with individual freedom and creativity for all?

Switching to remuneration, you ask, “who will decide what constitutes socially useful work?” Well, does anyone want the product? If not, producing it was not socially useful. Did the production responsibly utilize resources, tools, labor, and other inputs? If not, not all the work was socially useful. Thus the whole population together decides what is socially useful via allocation we have yet to discuss.

Finally, the guaranteed basic income you favor is possible but not necessary in a participatory economy, though getting a full income while moving between jobs or if you can’t work is necessary—but a full income, not a “basic income.” I wonder if the democratic planning you favor is markets plus democratically chosen policies to mitigate market failings. If so, I instead prefer participatory planning without markets at all.

Yanis Varoufakis’ third response:

6. Five conditions for a democratic workplace

Yanis Varoufakis, 24 January 2022

Portrait of Yanis Varoufakis. He is wearing a dark blue shirt and a black jacket. He is staring optimistically and smiling

Michael: To my question “Who decides if Harriet is allowed to choose her projects?”, you responded: “the workers’ council, of course”. To the question “Who decides what product or activity is socially useful?”, you replied: “the whole population together decides”. My gut reaction to your answers is a gut fear stemming from a natural dread I have of, as liberals and anarchists put it, the tyranny of the majority. Then again, democracy is only possible if the demos decides. The question is: Can democracy-at-work be made compatible with a degree of personal autonomy from what the majority thinks?  

At this point in our discussion we need to set out concrete rules for the governance of enterprises. Here are five that I would like to propose:

  i.               Democratic planning

Competing enterprise plans are put forward by members, each accompanied by a full rationale. They include how many resources to commit to R&D, which product or technology to invest in, the level of remuneration etc. Members are given a long period to read up on each proposal, to debate them and to form preferences. They are then invited to rank the proposals in order of preference on an electronic ballot form. If no plan wins an absolute majority of first preferences, a process of successive elimination takes place (based on Australia’s ranked preference electoral system) to determine the winning Plan.

ii.               Autonomy

Teams are formed (as per the Plan) by a democratic process that matches slots with applicants. No one is compelled to take a slot they do not want. Each retains the right to work, alone or in spontaneously formed teams, on any project she or he deems compatible with the Plan – without anyone’s permission.

iii.               Remuneration

A basic salary is paid to all, whose level is decided democratically as part of (i) above. Additionally, the collective can set aside a sum for two types of bonuses: (A) Job-specific; i.e., the collective decides that an X% bonus is right, reflecting the job’s unpleasantness or high skills necessary. (B) Person-Specific; i.e., a reward for extraordinary services to the enterprise’s overall performance, atmosphere etc. For example, each member is given 100 brownie points to distribute amongst her colleagues across the enterprise. Then, the total Personal-Bonus kitty is divided in proportion to how many points a member has received from everyone else.

iv.               The right to quit – and the right to a basic income

To be genuinely free and an authentic participant, a worker must have the right to walk away from a company if she feels the majority is stifling her. To render this right real, as opposed to theoretical, the worker must have an ‘outside option’. This is why an unconditional basic income (guaranteeing a life with dignity) for all is not an optional extra for the good society – but a fundamental obligation to its citizens

v.               The right to fire – and the right to a basic income

At the same time, for the majority to be free from toxic individuals, the collective must have the right to fire (by democratic vote) a member abusing her autonomy – a right that the collective can only exercise if it knows that everyone has the right to a basic income guaranteeing a life with dignity.

Over to you.

This is an ongoing debate between Michael Albert and Yanis Varoufakis: more entries will be added here soon.