In this edited version of the 226th episode of the audio Podcast titled RevolutionZ, I want to address a particular prevalent criticism of one aspect of participatory economics. To get this going and give it a kind of narrative feeling, imagine I received a message taking issue with the participatory economic idea for preventing the the rise of a ruling “coordinator class.” The corrective approach that the critic rejected was, in his words, “to distribute the tasks.”
This hypothetical amalgam critic (who from now on I will call “Crit”) didn’t mention the issue of decision making power in organizations. He didn’t discuss the idea that there is a class between labor and capital. He didn’t address the claim that what has been called twentieth century socialism elevated a “coordinator class” to ruling status rather than attaining classlessness. Instead, Crit addressed only what he took to be participatory economy’s particular method of addressing the for him unnamed class difference. He didn’t elaborate on what that method was. He didn’t even use its name—“balanced job complexes.” Instead Crit summarized the approach as to “distribute the tasks.” He went for a kill-shot that didn’t need details.
Did Crit think that his phrase “distribute the tasks” conveyed the idea of establishing an arrangement of work in which everyone does a mix of empowering and disempowering tasks? Did he think it implied dividing up tasks into jobs to provide comparably empowering economic circumstances for all rather than to provide some people circumstances that push them toward domination and other people circumstances that push them toward subordination? I think he did because Crit’s message began by acknowledging that to “distribute the tasks” would indeed “be a way of overcoming this [class division].” To acknowledge that potential only made sense if by “distribute the tasks” Crit did indeed mean establish balanced job complexes. After all, in every division of labor, corporate or otherwise, tasks are of course distributed among actors. If “distribute the tasks” meant only that tasks were spread among actors, it would not “be a way of overcoming” class division, or even a way of changing anything. So, for Crit it must have meant establish balanced job complexes.
Fair enough. Crit was addressing how tasks are distributed. Is it into balanced job complexes? Or is it into a division between those who do mainly empowering tasks and those who do only disempowering tasks? Interestingly, Crit didn’t argue that attaining balanced job complexes would not achieve its aim. He instead agreed that it would achieve its intended purpose if it could be done. But Crit added that to do it “runs into a barrier.” In other words, the corrective would work if we could do it, but there are obstacles that prevent doing it. Again, fair enough. Crit is correct that if it was unassailably true that a barrier makes balanced job complexes untenable, then they couldn’t be part of a viable vision. That was the intended kill shot.
I should first note, however, that whatever barrier Crit will turn out to have in mind, if having balanced job complexes would solve the problem of having a class division even after eliminating owners, then I would hope that if humanly possible the yet-to-be-identified barrier would be something we would try to overcome, not something we would immediately accept as permanent.
For example, obviously there are serious barriers to eliminating sexism, but we don’t for that reason give up on eliminating sexism and leave the matter there. We work to overcome those barriers. Why not the same for overcoming classism?
At any rate, Crit’s message (an amalgam of many, remember) continued, “and the barrier is that certain people like to do some things and not others. Some people are good at some things, and other people are good at other things.”
True, but it’s not easy to make sense of why this accurate but obvious observation reveals a decisive “barrier” to attaining balanced job complexes. Do “certain people like to do some things, and not others?” Of course. Are “some people good at some things and other people good at other things?” Of course. Crit’s observations are accurate. But do his observations reveal so great a barrier to having balanced job complexes that we will have to forego attaining them and will even have to accept having a coordinator class above a working class? Do Crit’s undeniably accurate observations—we each like and are good at some things and not at other things—imply that we have to acknowledge class hierarchy, like we have to acknowledge death or gravity?
For that matter, why did Crit think the fact that “certain people like to do some things and not others,” and that “some people are good at some things, and other people are good at other things,” throws up a barrier at all? Perhaps it depends on what he meant, after all, by “distribute the tasks.”
Suppose “distribute the tasks” meant for Crit that someone other than each worker will decide that the worker will do this balanced job or will do that balanced job irrespective of the worker’s abilities, interests, and preferences. If so, of course to “distribute the tasks” would be impeded by Crit’s observation. More, if an economy did manage to distribute its tasks in accordance with that meaning, it would certainly create disgruntled people.
But why would Crit think the observation constitute an obstacle if “distribute the tasks” means that we should each do a mix of tasks that we each ourselves choose to do in accord with our talents, interests, and preferences, but with the proviso that the mix we each do must include a fair mix of empowering and disempowering tasks? Does Crit think that because “certain people like to do some things, and not others,” some people will balk at a balanced job and say instead, “I want to do only disempowering tasks even though I live in a free and fair social setting, even though I enjoy real educational options, and even though I am free to participate equally and fully”?
How many students, for example, getting out of high school, anywhere in the world, even in societies that powerfully indoctrinate subordination and rule, such as my own, the U.S., would, if asked, say “I don’t want a free college education. In fact, I don’t want a college education even if to get one is considered socially productive so work so I would get income for it. I only want to do rote and tedious work. If to participate in the economy I have to develop my talents and choose a job that includes a fair mix of empowering tasks, I will resist. I will fight for the option to only follow orders. I want to be bossed.”
Under conditions of freedom and fair allocation, and with full and inspiring education, does Crit really think anyone is going to say, “hey, I don’t want to have any tasks whose characteristics are such that by doing them I gain insights, confidence, influence, and dignity? Instead, I just want to obey rules that others impose on me. I just want to carry out tasks that with each new day further reduce my insights, confidence, influence, and dignity.”
But if Crit doesn’t think some high percentage of all workers will always want to be subordinate, then how does the observation that people like different things and have different inclinations and abilities identify an obstacle to balancing jobs at all, much less identify an obstacle that is so powerful that we should give up having balanced job complexes even though having them would eliminate the class division between an empowered coordinator class and a disempowered working class by comparably empowering everyone?
Well, it could be that Crit thinks that some people who believe they are headed for coordinator class comfort and status will feel, on hearing about balanced job complexes, that they don’t want to do any tasks that are disempowering. Some people will feel they want to only do that which they want to do, and what they want to do is only empowering tasks and not anything else. No tedium for them. No grading papers. No dealing with records. Only research. Or no cleaning bedpans. Only doing surgery. Or no assembling on the line. Only overseeing it.
Okay, I agree with Crit that that feeling would indeed be an obstacle that would cause some people to not welcome and even to agitate against balanced job complexes. But how should we address that obstacle?
Consider that owners saying they want to own is similarly an obstacle to eliminating the owner/worker class division. And for that matter, men or whites saying they only want to be waited on is similarly a barrier to overcoming patriarchy and racism. These are barriers, yes, but hopefully you and Crit would agree they are barriers to overcome, not barriers to accept and give up about—unless, of course, one wants the oppressive hierarchies in question to remain.
Okay, so current coordinator class members who do not want to do balanced jobs are an obstacle like owners who do not want to no longer own are an obstacle. An obstacle to overcome.
But hold on, Crit might have had in mind that it isn’t just folks who expect to be in the empowered class who won’t rush to support this approach. Some working people will resist the idea that they should do conceptual labor, labor with responsibility, labor that empowers them, but that also involves new responsibilities. And that is quite true. But I believe that occurs for three broad reasons.
- Some workers who have been made to feel they cannot do balanced work, will want to avoid failing.
- Some workers who feel that to agree to do empowering work would fall into a trap that seeks to get more work out of them without really transforming their lives, will want to avoid greater exploitation.
- Some workers who do not want to take responsibility for the disgusting outputs and methods in current workplaces will want to avoid determining them.
And so yes, some workers (not just the empowered employees I call the coordinator class) will initially resist balanced job complexes and their doing so will be an obstacle. But again, won’t it be an obstacle to overcome, not one to accept. Just like women in the U.S. in the past (and even to a degree still) have doubted their own capacities or the honesty of those seeking to enlist them to new roles, or even the desirability of being a contributing part of a corrupt society—so too for working people now.
Seventy years ago, if you looked at all those doing empowering labor there were few women, indeed almost none. If you asked the men why there were few if any women doing empowering tasks, they would have said, “well, that is who women are. They do what they are good at. And it is what they want to do.”
Further, if you asked women in those days why there were so few women in empowering roles, a great many women—and in those days perhaps even a majority—would have at least initially answered more or less the same way. “It is who we are, what we can do, and what we want to do.” Of course it was not who they were, but instead it was who they were compelled to be.
Now someone could have said—and indeed many men did say—“hey, this feminism stuff is nonsense. It overlooks the reality of human tastes and preferences. Just look around. Efforts to overcome sexual hierarchies have failed for hundreds, in fact thousands of years. Give it up. Men like to do this, women like to do that—or, in the U.S., ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’.” The obstacle to having women do what are currently men’s tasks, and having men do what are currently women’s tasks, so as to share all the tasks more equally, is too great to overcome. “To seek a different outcome would deny people’s preferences and talents. To make that level of change happen by altering institutions would require coercing people, and people would become depressed. People would become dysfunctional. People would resist.”
These responses are analogous to Crit’s criticism of using balanced jobs to eliminate a class hierarchy that is based on some employees monopolizing empowering tasks while delegating subordination to others.
Could we conceive of a universe in which the actual capacities and inclinations of men and women were such that women had to be passive and if they wanted to do anything beyond caring for men and children, it could only be menial tasks because that was their preference and also their capacity? Yes, we could conceive of such a universe. But even while nearly everyone thought that was the actual explanation for the disparity in women’s and men’s situations seventy years ago, there was of course another possibility. It could be that what most men and many women at the time considered a virtually inevitable outcome of human attributes was, instead, a virtually inevitable outgrowth of the daily dynamics of certain sexist social arrangements that we could change.
Now consider coordinator class members—doctors, financial officers, lawyers, engineers, and so on, (about 20% of the workforce), who do empowering work and who have lots of power and considerable wealth. Ask those coordinators—why are all those others doing only disempowering work? There are four of them for every one of you. The answer will most often be, “well, that is what they are capable of. That is what they like.” And then ask the working class members why only one fifth of the population does all the empowering work while they do only disempowering work. Some will answer, “That is what we are capable of. It is what we like.” And could we conceive of a universe in which it was true that 20% of the population likes to be empowered and has the ability to be, and 80% both wouldn’t like it if they were empowered, and couldn’t be empowered in any case? Yes, we can conceive of that. But is that our universe? I hope you will agree that it is not. I hope you will agree that the reason for one fifth on top and four fifths below is because a set of institutions (including the corporate division of labor but also, of course, prior schooling, socialization, income distribution, markets, etc.) skews the apportionment of information, knowledge, confidence, and skills in a way that creates that outcome. It is our institutions at fault. It is not our stars or our genes.
We on the left all reject as mere propaganda the idea that since certain people like this and other people do like that—and since some people are good at this and other people are good at that—sexism, racism, and having an owning class is justified. Yet, oddly, and without seriously assessing the underlying logic of the claim or of any alternative possibilities, this same reasoning regarding the economy rises to the level of a justification for not overcoming coordinator classism by implementing balanced job complexes.
That surrender would only make sense if there were something about trying to “distribute the tasks” into balanced job complexes so as to overcome the problem of class division and class rule—which Crit agreed it would do—that would cause the result to fail or to be abysmal despite the elimination of class division it could achieve. In that case, we would have to forego balancing job complexes and find some other approach to the issue of coordinator class rule.
Crit continued, “I think people are just too different for them to be able to accept that kind of a structure.”
What kind of structure? Crit didn’t describe it. Okay, his (hypothetical) message was just a short one. But still, having not described the structure, how can the claim have weight? If Crit had accurately in mind balanced job complexes, then he would have been speaking of a structure that would give most people way more daily variety and of course more influence and stature than they would otherwise have access to. He would have been speaking of a structure in which the difference between what one person does and what the next person does is as large as people’s different tastes and inclinations make desirable—unlike with a corporate division of labor where, regarding the level of empowerment, there is no diversity at all for about 80% because for them the level of empowerment is near zero.
So what exactly changes when we switch from a corporate division of labor to “that kind of structure”? And is what changes unendurable or is it positive? Besides eliminating class division and class rule, and therefore not just poverty but any unjust inequity, and not just grossly authoritarian impositions but anything short of self management, under participatory economics the big difference relevant to this discussion is that the empowerment level of work is essentially the same for everyone. It is empowerment effects on workers that balanced job complexes balance.
So we have arrived back at our initial query. How does the fact that people differ from one another tell us that a corporate division of labor that produces class difference will be doable, even unavoidable, but that a division of labor that eliminates class difference won’t be doable?
The only answer I can conceive would be that the differences that Crit sees among people seem to him such that rather than our all being essentially equally empowered being a result consistent with human needs and abilities, instead, to be consistent with everyone’s human attributes, about 20% should wield almost all power because that is their innate need and capacity, whereas the other 80% should do rote and repetitive tasks, because that is their innate need and capacity. This view, for class, is very like saying under patriarchy women get what they want and are capable of so that trying to replace patriarchy is a fool’s errand. Whatever motivations or confusions may fuel the same conclusion applied to balanced job complexes, it’s impact is objectively classist.
People now accept (whether aggressively, or with resignation, or passively) a structure in which eighty percent are disempowered by their labor. For the eighty percent, jobs differ from one another in what rote tasks they include, but not in the level of empowerment the jobs convey. They convey nearly none. They disempower. Eighty percent can choose to do disempowering job A, or can choose to do disempowering job B, but they cannot choose a job that is at all empowering.
Does Crit really want to imply that human nature is such that those eighty percent would, given the opportunity for change, reject a structure that provides them education, influence, dignity, respect, and an equitable income? I doubt it.
So maybe when Crit says “people are just too different for them to be able to accept that kind of a structure,” he has in mind that the twenty percent who now monopolize empowering work have some personal difference from other people that will cause them to reject balanced job complexes.
And, yes, to an extent, and again, I agree that that is true. But I think the personal (socially imposed) differences are called “class interests” and “class-bred habits.” And I again ask Crit, doesn’t that difference need to be overcome—just like the resistance of men to eliminating sexism, or of whites to eliminating racism, or of owners to eliminating private ownership, need to be overcome?
Crit goes on, “my own guess is that any kind of organization is going to have representation, but with constant recall and control from below, such as monitoring what the coordinator class is doing.”
This says, at least to my ears, that we will have coordinator class positions inside our own organizations and in a new society. Given that we must have that, the best we can do is to try to mitigate the ensuing ill effects by guarding against any undue violations of freedom, dignity, etc. that stem from that class hierarchy. To do that, Crit says, we can employ representation and recall.
But in this case, what more specifically does that mean? We are going to have to conceive of engineers, doctors, managers, etc., as “representatives”? And we will have to recall them into rote labor if we don’t like their acts? Really? Can one even imagine Crit saying the same thing but identifying the capitalist class as the sector we have to keep within limits while we let private ownership persist? I don’t think so. Can we imagine Crit saying that to deal with the pains that society’s evident gender hierarchy creates, we should have men overseen and recallable, or some such thing? I don’t think so.
Of course restraining power and privilege is better than letting power and privilege operate without restraints. But better still is to end the structures that create hierarchies of power and privilege in the first place. So perhaps Crit doesn’t mean what to me his few words seemed to say. I feel certain, for example, that as a leftist Crit would not say that worker resistance to monitoring their own bosses, which most certainly exists, counts as an argument against the merits of getting rid of bosses.
That any large organization, or society, requires lots of structures if it is to function well, including elements of participation and representation, is, like the observation about people being different, certainly true. But as with that earlier observation, here too, why is this relevant? Jumping from the earlier observation to dismissing a method for preventing about twenty percent of the population from doing all the representing and deciding—and about eighty percent, robbed of information and efficacy, at best keeping watch on their bosses from below, was an unwarranted leap. Is faith in accountability and recall more warranted?
With the corporate division of labor in place, we have a division of labor that gives about twenty percent of the workforce a monopoly on relevant information, confidence, and access to levers of power. It gives them a mindset that they have their advantages because they are more capable of initiative, creativity, and insight. They see themselves as smarter and better. They come to believe they want to do the associated tasks while everyone else, below, is incapable of such activity and in any case happy to not do the associated tasks. With those conditions in place, does it make any sense to think ill effects will be kept in check by some formal recall power, whatever that might even mean, regarding doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.? I don’t think so.
Crit went on, “It is kind of striking that after about thirty years of hard theoretical work, there are still no organizations that illustrate the parecon system. Theoretically it is well thought out. Lots of good discussion, thinking through the possibilities, but can you think of organizations that work like that? There is a proliferation of worker owned and worker managed enterprises but they don’t go that far.”
I won’t dwell on the fact that most groups of friends operate very much like parecon. We don’t appoint bosses. And that there are also many experiments that at least partially try to be parecon-ish. Let’s also ignore that to create and maintain any small business, even if you have ample resources, even in an arena where there are no difficult obstacles to your product being wanted, is a very hit or miss affair.
Let’s also suppose there was no pareconish experiment now flourishing—after the gargantuan span of thirty years. I agree that that could plausibly be taken as a sign that one should be careful. Maybe in theory parecon is solid, but experiments haven’t blossomed because they cannot blossom for reasons we don’t yet understand. Yes, maybe that depressing explanation could be accurate. But before embracing the permanence of class division, and before accepting that the best we can do is better representation and recall to reduce the worst ills of coordinator class rule, here is a very different explanation for the relative dearth of pareconish experiments.
Maybe it is because such efforts have to plant innovative seeds in a tremendously hostile environment. More, maybe if those who monopolize information, confidence, and access to communications don’t want something to happen and don’t even want it to be seriously discussed—then to get that approach on the table, much less to get it implemented, even in experiments, is going to be very difficult.
Wouldn’t this explain why it has taken people a few decades not to think up this vision—that was actually not particularly hard other than that it was so contrary to prior beliefs that we all learn—but to spread the vision against the barrier of contrary biases and despite media silence in the mainstream and even to a considerable extent on the left?
And when after tremendous effort the ideas incredibly do spread, at least somewhat, to reach some new people—wouldn’t the fact that the ideas then get deemed impossible to implement by people who, however, offer no real substantive reasons for the dismissal and don’t welcome any debate, also help explain the difficulty?
Crit is an amalgam of comments from various anarchist critics—but Crit can’t see going so far as to change the division of labor. Well, I reply that anarchists, after all, were arguably the first to take note of and to rail against the elevation of a class that they called intellectuals, but which corresponded in a much earlier time to what participatory economics now calls the coordinator class.
Anarchists often quote Bakunin warning of the possibility that this class will decide to seek to rule by coopting worker rebellion against owners. They quote him warning that this class will seek to establish themselves as new rulers and will then punish workers with “the people’s stick.”
So somewhat ironically in the face of criticism by Crit the anarchist, anarchism is the heritage, and Bakunin is the first source I was aware of, from which the class views of participatory economics arose. The only difference from the early anarchists’ warning is that participatory economics not only rejects class domination based on a monopoly of empowering circumstances, it also advocates actually replacing the institutional basis of the coordinator class’s power with institutions that instead generate the conditions of classlessness.
And just as despite our having begun the struggles much longer ago, our having not yet ended racism, sexism, and authoritarianism doesn’t mean we can’t ever end them, likewise, our not yet having ended coordinator class rule over workers doesn’t mean we can’t ever end that.
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