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Participatory Differences

Michael Albert | ZNet

[The following is an edited transcript of the podcast RevolutionZ’s 230th episode. It is from RevolutionZ’s unscripted Ruminations series, but it is also about something I’m very familiar with because in this episode I discussed not all differences among all allies, but just some differences among some advocates of participatory economics. Regular listeners to RevolutionZ are familiar with the participatory economic vision but for others, while I here try to avoid assuming background knowledge, some of what appears below may be, well, unfamiliar.]

Participatory economics is a vision for a post-capitalist economy. It features a productive commons, workers and consumers self managing councils, jobs balanced for empowerment, equitable remuneration, and participatory planning. But beyond these core agreements, as of June 2023, what differences among themselves do participatory economy’s advocates have?

Differences About Jobs

Participatory economy’s advocates broadly that we should reject the division of labor not only typical in capitalism but also typical in what has been called twentieth century socialism. That familiar corporate division of labor gives about twenty percent of the workforce empowering tasks and the remaining eighty percent disempowering tasks. The empowered managers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc., who we call the coordinator class, control day-to-day operations because they monopolize the information, skills, and access necessary for decision making. In contrast, the disempowered assemblers, cleaners, drivers, etc., who we call the working class, do tasks that fragment and reduce rather than enhance their skills. Their daily activities separate them from the information and access essential for making decisions. The empowered coordinator class commands the disempowered working class.

To remove that coordinator/worker hierarchy, everybody in a good economy needs to be able and even eager to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. To achieve that prerequisite condition, each person in each workplace needs to do a job which has a comparable empowerment effect to all other jobs in that workplace. Participatory economy’s advocates agree that there won’t be only one right way for workplaces to arrange their balanced jobs. Different workplaces with different conditions, means, and preferences will likely adopt different procedures to arrive at their own balanced job complexes. 

So what differences do advocates of balanced jobs have with one another? To balance within workplaces means everyone in each workplace has a job comparable in its empowerment effects to everyone else’s job in that workplace. But what if across workplaces there remain very large differences in empowerment?

For example, imagine that eighty percent of the workforce winds up in a subset of workplaces that have only highly disempowering tasks. And imagine twenty percent of the workforce winds up in workplaces that have only highly empowering tasks. In other words, what if an “empowerment hierarchy” doesn’t exist inside each workplace because everyone has a balanced job for their own workplace, but still exists in the economy as a whole, due to imbalances between workplaces? What if a fifth of employees are empowered and four fifths are disempowered because we’ve sequestered all the empowering work into some workplaces and all the disempowering work into others? We’d still have unbalanced jobs, but now between workplaces. 

You might ask, “well, okay, but how could you possibly do that without screwing up the economy? Who would make decisions in workplaces with balanced jobs that are only disempowering? Such workplaces would have no one capable and inclined to make its needed decisions. Nothing would get done.”

Imagine you farm out a workplace’s empowering tasks. For example a vehicle workplace contracts with a managerial firm, an accounting firm, an engineering firm and others as needed to take care of decision making and managing the vehicle plant and other empowering tasks. No matter where you are in that restructured vehicle plant its balanced jobs are only disempowering. Imagine for another workplace, say a publishing house or accounting firm, you farm out the disempowering tasks. The editors and accountants remain, but you farm out the custodial, secretarial, and other disempowering tasks to disempowering firms. No matter where you are in the renovated publishing house, its balanced jobs are only highly empowering.

Some advocates of participatory economics feel that that scenario can lead to a class divided workforce despite having balanced jobs inside each workplace. Those advocates’ want to balance jobs not only in each workplace but also across workplaces. They feel that people in a highly empowered workplace would need to spend some time in a disempowering workplace. Similarly, they feel people in a disempowering workplace would have to spend some time elsewhere doing various tasks that are empowering. 

The point is, if you think imbalances between workplaces would lead to a coordinator/worker class division, then despite its added complications, to achieve classlessness you will want to balance across as well as within workplaces. On the other hand, you might think that the hassle of having people work in more than one place will outweigh what you consider the negligible possibility of a class division emerging if you only balance within workplaces.

My own view is that I favor balancing across as well as within workplaces. I think that seeking to balance for empowerment only within workplaces would guarantee retention of a disempowered and an empowered sector of the workforce, and thus a class division.

Differences About Remuneration

Advocates of participatory economics reject providing income for property, power, or even output. They tend to agree, instead, that work should receive income for how long, how intensely, and under what conditions it produces socially valued output. They favor the ethical and incentive implications of this approach and call it equitable remuneration. Society wants us to work usefully and not just lolly gag around calling it work. It wants us to do needed socially onerous tasks. It wants us to work the duration that will produce the amount of output society collectively wants for consumption. In turn, duration, intensity, and onerousness are factors for which remuneration can impact what we do. But within each workplace, how do workers determine how to distribute the total income the workplace has available so that each worker receives an appropriate amount for the duration, intensity, and onerousness of their socially valued work? Once there is agreement about that as a norm, advocates understand that each workplace will collectively decide its own procedures which will undoubtedly differ somewhat from what other workplaces decide due to different circumstances and preferences in different workplaces.

In other words, inside each workplace there isn’t only one correct way to fulfill a norm such as remunerating for only duration, intensity, and onerousness. With that norm, the economy needs an overarching mechanism to decide that workplace A and workplace B are afforded an amount of income to disperse among their workforces that accords with each workplace’s overall duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued work. But then how closely and by what methods each workplace chooses to keep internal track of differences in duration, intensity, and onerousness of its member workers, and by what procedures each workplace then apportions its total allotted income will likely differ in different workplaces because of their different products, processes, and preferences. For example, I might prefer a workplace where the assessment of duration, intensity, and onerousness is relatively relaxed. You might prefer a workplace where that assessment is quite precise so that differences in income are more refined. I may think that getting high precision is not worth the time and effort that goes into it. I may want to work in a workplace, for example, where we choose to have an average income, an above average income 5% higher, a super income 10% higher, and then also an income 5% below average and another 10% below average. You may instead prefer to have many more gradations of as little as 2% or even 1%. In any case, the idea is that just as with balanced job complexes, there’s an overall aim or norm that’s agreed for all workplaces, and then features that are contextually different because different workplaces have different conditions and preferences.

But what non contextual remuneration difference exist among participatory economy’s advocates? It turns out that some advocates favor a completely different norm than remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness. Some people who in all other respects advocate participatory economics and who even like participatory remuneration vastly more than remuneration for property, power, or output would say, “wait a minute, there’s something still better than that.” And the thing that they would say Is better is the time-honored norm “from each according to ability to each according to need.” And while I think all advocates of participatory economics would agree that there’s something very nice about the intent of “from each according to ability to each according to need,” I think many advocates of equitable remuneration would add that taken as a literal guide for income “from each to each” has some very serious flaws. And while I’m not going to go through all those in full detail, the reasoning is relatively simple.

If you get what you say you need, why don’t you just say you need more and more and more? Why don’t you ask for everything that will make you more fulfilled, more satisfied with your circumstances, and more able to develop your abilities? If you like astronomy, why don’t you want a backyard observatory? If you like skating, why don’t you want a backyard ice skating rink? If you like travel, why not an endless trip around the world? The reason is “from each to each” assumes you want to be responsible and you know such requests would be greedy and irresponsible. Not everybody can have so much. But advocates of the duration, intensity, and onerousness norm wonder what will reveal to you what is too greedy and what is responsible.

With the “from each to each” norm in place, the economy will say to you, take what you need, but it won’t say, that much is too much, or, for that matter, that much is too little. And the same goes for work. How do you know how much is responsible to produce? You are in a workplace with 50 (or 500) co-workers. Why should you produce more or less? How long should you work? How hard should you work? Should you do the onerous things or just slough them off at the expense of output? You don’t know what is responsible. Suppose your ability would allow you to work 80 hours a week. In that case, should you work 80 hours a week just because that’s your ability? No, of course not. There is a societal amount to work that is responsible in light of the amount of desire there is in society for the outputs of production as compared to the desire there is in society for leisure time. There is a personal amount to work for you in light of your desire for income as compared to for leisure. But “from each to each” doesn’t reveal that total amount for society, nor does it tell me what my share of that total ought to be.

A second related problem is how does the economy know in what direction to make innovations? Where should we invest? Do we want to enlarge our capacity to make one item or some other item? Where is the feedback in this approach that distinguishes pursuing X and pursuing Y? The needs approach doesn’t tell us how much people want X as compared to how much people want Y, because to get what you need and you to give what you are capable of doesn’t reveal any gradation of needs or desires. It doesn’t tell us where we should invest to create new capacity.

As for myself, I like certain desires behind from “each according to ability to each according to need,” in particular, that the economy should collectively provide full income for those who are unable to work fully, and should likewise meet special needs for free medical care, day care, etc. In other words people shouldn’t get short changed, receiving less than they need due to not being able to work. Likewise, people shouldn’t get over worked, being pushed harder than they are able. The problem is the norm doesn’t provide information needed for desirable allocation. So while I think that we can positively fulfill the “from each to each” virtues by way of equitable remuneration, I also think we would seriously violate economic viability if to fulfill those virtues we opted for the “from each to each” norm. 

Differences Regarding Allocation

The agreement regarding allocation among advocates of participatory economics is first off that we don’t want markets and we don’t want central planning because we feel that by what markets and central planning cause people to do and by the way they arrive at outcomes, both markets and central planning deny self-management and violate the ecology. More, like the corporate division of labor, they elevate an empowered coordinator class over a disempowered working class. How do they do these things? Well, that’s a much longer discussion, but let’s settle here on noting that there is that level of agreement among advocates of participatory economics.

The next step for such advocates is, okay, if we’re not going to have markets or central planning, what are we going to have? Pretty much every advocate of participatory economics agrees that we should have self managing workers and consumers councils develop, refine, and make decisions regarding work and consumption. But how? 

Participatory economy’s advocates all want workers and consumers to cooperatively arrive at a plan regarding what’s produced and what’s consumed. They want the plan’s procedures to facilitate the accurate valuation of all items so allocation decisions properly reflect people’s true preferences regarding personal, social, and environmental effects. More, participatory economy’s advocates agree all of this will require a new mechanism, and that the mechanism advocates propose is called participatory planning. Workers’ councils make proposals. Consumers individually and as councils make proposals. The workers councils see what consumers have collectively proposed for consumption. The consumers councils see what producers have collectively proposed for production. There follows another round of proposals, where in each new round, or iteration, workers and consumers offer and respond to revised proposals. Iterations continue until there is an agreed plan. The prices of items evolve until they accurately represent the full personal, social, and ecological costs and benefits of the production and consumption of the items in question. Amounts offered by producers come into accord with amounts sought by consumers. But if that much is agreed, what differences exist?

First, as in the case of balanced job complexes and equitable remuneration, there are differences about additional contextually contingent features that will be incorporated in any real implementation participatory planning. So, for instance, one extra thing to incorporate is how to assess and handle the implications of environmental externalities. For example, a workplace that’s generating pollution needs to be charged for that so there’s a reason for it to either cut back its pollution because it’s doing damage that is worse than its benefits, or to continue with the pollution because the benefits outweigh the damage. To decide, we need a mechanism for ascertaining the correct valuation of the pollution. More, we also need such a measure so that the people who are hurt by the pollution can be properly compensated. Another element to add is how to determine investment. Society needs to set aside and then utilize a certain amount of its productive potential not for immediate consumption, but for the maintenance of the system and the development of new ways of operating in the future. Society might, for example, want to invest to reduce the amount of onerous labor, or to save certain resources, or to explore Mars. There are also details of the basic planning iterations themselves and of the communication of information during those iterations as well as of additional structures that economies may need to facilitate people getting new jobs, or changing where they live, and so on.

So what differences exist that aren’t about filling out the model with contingent details that may quite reasonably vary in different implementations? In the case of the division of labor, this is like settling on do we or don’t we balance across workplaces as compared to flexibly incorporating various instances of contingent details such as how each workplace approaches balancing their own jobs. And in the case of remuneration, it is like do we have as our norm equitable remuneration or do we have “from each according to ability and to each according to need,” as compared to how each workplace then contingently implements an agreed norm.

I think one such potentially important allocation difference is about “qualitative information.” To what extent should we incorporate mechanisms in participatory planning that allow for the communication of qualitative information as compared to communicating just information about degree of desires to consume or produce some item? To what extent should we have means for producers and consumers to access the actual characteristics of why consumers desire some output or not, and why workers want to produce some output or not?

In other words, do we want qualitative information from consumers and producers to not only enter into the determination of valuations by way of their collective impact on particular councils’ overall proposals, but to also be more specified, conveyed, and accessible to other councils? Advocates of participatory planning’s difference about this hinges on views of the relative benefits versus the relative costs of having more qualitative information available. To elicit, accumulate, and convey qualitative information would involve some time and steps. If you think that would introduce a considerable burden for little gain, you will oppose it. If you think that having the qualitative information available would introduce a considerable gain with little burden, then you will favor it.

My own view is that qualitative information is not endlessly important and should not be imposed when it isn’t needed, but that having mechanisms that gather qualitative information and that allow workers and consumers to choose to access it will enhance people’s capacity for empathy and solidarity, and also guard against prices deviating from what are really true social and ecological costs and benefits. 

Differences Regarding Emphases

Next, what about differences regarding how advocates present the vision? When anyone presents an economic vision, or for that matter, a political, kinship, ecology or, say, more narrowly an education or sports vision, what do we want to convey? A difference regarding presenting the vision—and I think there are gradations of this among advocates of participatory economics—is whether you should present a full picture that is rich in its components of what you hope to attain so you try to provide answers to as many questions as you can come up with? Or should you present a kind of a core map or scaffold that leaves out contingent features? Should you present, that is, a detailed comprehensive map of all features or just a core map of only essential features?

While no advocate of participatory economics is at what we might call either extreme regarding what to present, some advocates provide more detail and deemphasize the extent to which much of what they present is contextually contingent. Other advocates emphasize the essential core elements but don’t go much into what they always make perfectly clear is contingent content. For the latter approach, the core or scaffold to which contingent features will necessarily be appended in future practice are the elements that are considered essential for the full economy to wind up with self-management, solidarity, diversity, equity, classlessness and ecological sanity. You present core features that are in your view essential to winding up where you aim, and you acknowledge that there are many more contingent aspects that will depend on future experiences and preferences. For example, inside each workplace, there are contingent details regarding how to arrive at balanced jobs so choices will often differ in different workplaces precisely because different workplaces have different attributes. The same holds for dispersing equitable income to each actor in different workplaces, and perhaps for exactly how much qualitative information is collected and made accessible during planning.

The point is that this type difference can yield different ways of talking about and presenting the vision. At the extremes, one might reach far into suggesting or implying that things are essential when they aren’t, or one might stick so closely to what is thought to be essential as to leave out texture needed to show that the vision really is worthy and viable. Of course, both these extremes should be avoided.

Another instance, I think, of a difference in presentation priorities, derives from the issue of class relations. To what degree do advocates highlight and explore the class hierarchy between disempowered workers and empowered coordinators versus noting that it exists but not overly addressing it? I am not sure this difference even exists, but it certainly could. Some advocates of participatory economics could think emphasis is needed so that immediate program and then final aims aren’t subverted by coordinator interests dominating choices. Other advocates might think deemphasis is needed to avoid unnecessarily polarizing tensions between coordinator class members and working class members when they could all mobilize against owners.

Another possible place where I think there may be differences in ways of presenting could arise from different views about how to talk about efficiency. So, first, what is efficiency? Efficiency is, I believe, accomplishing what you desire to accomplish without wasting things you value. So if you can do a task in way one, and you can do it in way two, and way one gets you the outcome that you seek and does it without wasting stuff that you value and way two gets you to the same outcome, but it wastes people’s time or wastes resources or wastes inputs, you will consider way one more efficient than way two.

It turns out, in others words, that being efficient has to do with stuff that you value as ends and as means. And what we value is in the eye of the beholder. For a capitalist, efficiency means making profits while reproducing the conditions of capitalist dominance without wasting anything that the capitalist values. But notice, capitalists don’t value other people’s wellbeing. They don’t value the ecology. If they get to their sought end of profit and they do it by cost cutting and by speed up or by dumping waste, they feel they are supremely efficient. But since we value the human wellbeing of the workforce and the environment around the workplace, (not to mention we don’t seek capitalist ends), we think they capitalist practices are grossly inefficient. Since we don’t value profits for owners, and we do value human wellbeing and development for workers and consumers, for us efficiency is very different than it is for capitalists. If all participatory economy advocates can agree on that, and I suspect we can all agree on that, then what is the difference we might have regarding how we talk about efficiency?

I think the difference here is that some advocates of participatory economics might say that using the word efficiency and thinking about it in terms of time, energy, and getting things done well and quickly is enough. You don’t have to clarify for every situation what is valued and what is sought to make clear how your approach is humanly and not capitalistically efficient. People just understand. Other advocates might say no, people don’t automatically understand. The word efficient is so warped by the fact that now it is based on what owners seek and value, that in people’s minds, the use of the word only implies getting tasks done more quickly with less waste of inputs. Well, what if getting tasks done more quickly imposes hardship upon the people doing the tasks? In that case, it might not be more efficient to get the same output by reducing the time spent. Or what if in a good economy we have a workplace that produces vehicles and we ask what does it mean to be efficient at producing vehicles? If the answer someone offers is to produce them with as little time spent as possible or with as little effort expended as possible, in fact that may or may not be efficient. What if producing it with less time spent is accomplished by incorporating methods which are dangerous or which simply reduce the fulfillment of workers on the job? What if reducing effort involves increasing pollution? The point is, we desire efficiency in the sense of accomplishing human fulfillment and development without wasting things that we value.

In this case, I think the difference among participatory economy’s advocates is operational. I don’t think we disagree about whether or not we want to be efficient. To not want to be efficient is to not want to attain our sought ends, which is sort of ridiculous. Or it is to want to attain sought ends in a manner that costs more in terms of things we value than it has to. And that also is sort of ridiculous. So we want to be efficient, but only if we take into account the full dimensions of both our sought goal and our methods. The difference is about the wisdom of using terms without being certain people hear them as we mean them.

Dealing With Differences 

Okay. If participatory economy’s advocates have the above described differences and perhaps others that I haven’t perceived, how should we navigate these differences? I think a good answer arises from the underlying values of participatory economics and participatory society. We value diversity. That means we understand it is quite valuable to have diverse views, opinions, and approaches in the air, even if operationally we can only implement one at a time. That is, though we often can’t simultaneously do all things advocates favor, we can keep different preferences on the table so that we’re constantly able to upgrade from one to another if it becomes evident that the one we have been using isn’t the one we ought to be using. 

Advocates of participatory economics say that you can’t have private ownership of workplaces. Somebody else says you can. This difference is not the type I’m talking about. You don’t navigate this difference. You’re going to have to decide between the two options and to keep the option of having capitalists on the table is not really viable. You will not every day reassess that. Why? Because removing private ownership of productive assets is  part of the core of the system that you support and you see the core as essential. You may reassess in light of new experiences the details of participatory planning. You may reassess the details of how to implement balanced jobs, especially across workplaces. You may reassess the details of how to fulfill equitable remuneration, especially in different workplaces. But you don’t continually reassess having private ownership versus having a productive commons. You don’t continually reassess having a corporate division of labor versus having balanced jobs. You don’t continually reassess having exploitation versus having equitable remuneration. You don’t continually reassess having markets or central planning versus having participatory planning. So I think a good way to navigate the differences discussed in this essay is to welcome them. It is to be open-minded about them. But we shouldn’t just say, okay, willy-nilly, you think that therefore, that’s right.

No. You advocate for what you believe. You make a case for what you believe, but you leave open the possibility that you are wrong so you continue to consider alternatives. What would be bad would be to be utterly inflexible about differences among advocates of a particular vision. So in the case we’re discussing it would be bad for advocates of participatory economics to treat differences among themselves about things like those we’ve been talking about above as if they are differences in principle, as if they are differences about essential core features. That is the kind of approach that leads to dumb and even suicidal splits. 

Suppose you have a political approach, a movement approach, and there’s a difference within the ranks. Good would be if it’s a difference which is not about the core of the whole project, but is about the project’s details of implementation, or is about how we describe it, or is about how we understand the circumstances in which we’re pursuing it, and we recognize that those circumstances can change and our opinions might change, so we keep different contending ideas alive and keep exploring them even though at any given time for coherence we may have to arrive at a shared overall view. Bad would be to treat such differences as if they are like differing about whether or not we should have royalty, or whether or not we should have slavery, or whether or not we should have private ownership, exploitation, or markets.

In other words, we should not treat all differences alike. When we treat differences of the sort that we should preserve and pay attention to as if, instead, they are fundamental, that’s when one part of a community of advocates of something splits from another part of the community of advocates of that thing. And when that happens, it tends to be because the two subsets get caught up in their allegiance to their own view and their own identity, and not caught up in learning from unfolding experience so as to find the best outcome. The point is there are reasons for respectful dismissiveness and there are reasons to be respectful and not dismissive.

For example, if “from each according to ability to each according to need” proves itself better than equitable remuneration because of circumstances that we can’t predict now, okay, so be it. It’s better. Great. One isn’t attached to equitable remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor to the exclusion of acknowledging that something else may prove itself better. And vice versa, if it becomes obvious that equitable remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor is more essential and desirable, then you would imagine the contrary view would fade away. And similarly for differences about job balancing, allocation, or emphases of description. 

We want respectful flexible exploration and refinement of views that we continually adapt to account for new experiences. We don’t want dismissive attachment to views that we inflexibly deem incontestable.