Back to ZNet
Back to Parecon: Life After Capitalism Book Page
Buy Parecon: Life After Capitalism in print
As it happens, there are no columns in standard double-entry book-keeping to keep track of satisfaction and demoralization. There is no credit entry for feelings of self-worth and confidence, no debit column for feelings of uselessness and worthlessness. There are no monthly, quarterly, or even annual statements of pride and no closing statement of bankruptcy when the worker finally comes to feel that after all he couldnt do anything else, and doesnt deserve anything better.
We have established that workplaces should be organized and run by workers councils and that these councils will also be the vehicle through which workers manifest their preferences regarding how long they wish to work, what they wish to produce, what tools and methods they wish to use, and so on. We have said that workers in their councils at various levels from small teams to whole industries will have appropriate say. But, there is a wrinkle to work out. What does it mean to suggest that an assembly worker toiling at a repetitive task all day, a financial executive overseeing workplace information and budgeting, and a manager overseeing the activities of dozens of rote workers, should have equal say in the activities of the company for which they all work?
Not all tasks are equally desirable, and even in a formally democratic council, if some workers do only rote tasks that numb their minds and bodies, and other workers do engaging and empowering tasks that not only brighten their spirits and attentiveness, but also provide them with information critical to intelligent decision-making, saying that the two should have equal impact on decisions denies reality. Democratic councils help create conditions that enable participation and give people appropriate impact over decisions, but something more is needed to equalize daily work assignments vis-à-vis the impact peoples work experience has on their capacity to participate and render informed judgments. If some workers have consistently greater information and responsibility in their jobs, they will dominate workplace decisions and in that sense become a ruling coordinator class, even though they operate in democratic councils and have no special ownership of the workplace.
Parecons antidote to corporate divisions of labor imposing class division is that if you work at a particularly unpleasant and disempowering task for some time each day or week, then for some other time you should work at more pleasant and empowering tasks. Overall, people should not do either rote and unpleasant work or conceptual and empowering work all the time. We should each instead have a balanced mix of tasks.
This does not say that every person must perform every task in every workplace. The same person need not work as a doctor, an engineer, and a literary critic, much less work at every imaginable task throughout an economy. Those who assemble cars today need not assemble computers tomorrow, much less every imaginable product. Nor should everyone who works in a hospital perform brain surgery as well as every other hospital function. The aim is not to eliminate divisions of labor, but to ensure that over some reasonable time frame people should have responsibility for some sensible sequence of tasks for which they are adequately trained and such that no one enjoys consistent advantages in terms of the empowerment effects of their work.
We do not mean that we have doctors who occasionally clean bed pains, nor secretaries who every so often attend a seminar. Parading through the ghetto does not yield scars and slinking through a country club does not confer status. Short-term stints in alternative circumstanceswhether slumming or admiringdo not rectify long-term inequities in basic responsibilities. We do mean, instead, that everyone has a set of tasks that together compose his or her job such that the overall implications of that whole set of tasks are on average like the overall implications for empowerment of all other jobs.
Further, for those doing only elite work in one workplace to do only rote work in another would not challenge the hierarchical organization of work in either one. We need to balance job complexes for desirability and empowerment in each and every workplace, as well as guarantee that workers have a combination of tasks that balance across workplaces. This and only this provides a division of labor that gives all workers an equal chance of participating in and benefiting from workplace decision-making. This and only this establishes a division of labor which does not produce a class division between permanent order-givers and order-takers.
Since disparate empowerment at work inexorably destroys participatory potentials and creates class differences, while differences in quality of life at work could be justly offset by appropriate remuneration, we will focus more on empowerment for the rest of this chapter. In practice, there probably is not much difference since balancing empowerment likely takes us a long way toward balancing quality of life, and in any event, broader issues will resurface as we proceed in other chapters.
To start, almost everyone is aware that typical jobs in familiar corporate contexts combine tasks with the same qualitative characteristics so that each worker has a homogenous job complex and most people do one level of task. In contrast, seeking appropriate empowerment, a participatory economy offers balanced job complexes where everyone typically does many levels of tasks. Each parecon worker has a particular bundle of diverse responsibilities, and each persons bundle prepares him or her to participate as an equal to everyone else in democratic workplace decision-making.
This might be a good time to point out that in part III of this book we include considerable daily life detail, including describing hypothetical workplaces and consumer units, to illustrate the nuts and bolts of possible implementations of participatory economics. Even more description is available online at www.parecon.org. In this chapter, it is only the essential abstract character of the matter that we highlight.
At any rate, we hope the idea is starting to crystalize. With a typical capitalist approach to defining jobs we can imagine someone listing all possible tasks to be done in a workplace. We can then imagine someone giving each task a rank of 1 to 20, with higher being more empowering and lower being more deadening and stultifying. So in this experiment we have hundreds or perhaps even thousands of stripped-down tasks from which we create actual jobs. No single task is enough to constitute a whole job. Some jobs may take only a few tasks, some many. When the corporate approach is adopted, each defined job is a bundle of tasks, but each task in that bundle has very nearly the same rating as all the others. As a result, the corporate job bundle may come up with a 1, a 7, a 15, or a 20 as its average empowerment rating. The average could be any number on the scale, but the job itself will be comprised of a fairly homogenized bundle of tasks all rated about the same. In other words the job will be pegged to a position in a 1 to 20 hierarchy and all its component tasks will be at that rank or just a bit above or below. Rose gets mostly 5s, some 4s and 6s. Robert gets mostly 17s, some 16s and 18s.
Now suppose we switch to the participatory economic workplace. There are quite a few differences in tasks due to the transition to a new type of economy, for reasons to be discovered as we proceed, but still it is a long list. The tasks are of course still differentiated in terms of their empowerment effects, just as in the capitalist economy and we again rank each one of them from 1 to 20 (though there are fewer at the low end than before). However their combination into parecon jobs changes dramatically. Instead of combing a bunch of 6s into a 6 job, and a bunch of 18s into an 18 job, every job is now a combination of tasks of varied levels such that each job in the workplace has the same average grade. Maybe the workplace is a coal mine and the average is 4 or maybe it is a factory and the average is 7 or it is a school and the average is 11 or it is a research center and the average is 14. Whatever the average for the unit is, everyone who works there has a job whose combination of tasks yields the same average. In the coal mine, where the average is 4, jobs may have tasks that are all rated 4, or maybe a job has some 7s, 4s and 2s but it averages to 4. In the research plant someone may have all 14s, or maybe a 4 and 5, a bunch of 13s, 14, and 15s, and a 19 or 20. The point is that every worker has a job. Every job has many tasks. The tasks are suited to the worker and vice versa, so the tasks combine into a sensible agenda of responsibilities. The average empowerment impact of the sum of tasks in any job in any workplace is the same as the average empowerment for all other jobs in that workplace. When the workers come together in their workers councils, whether for work-teams, units, divisions, or the whole workplace, there is no subset of workers whose conditions have prepared them better and left them more energetic or provided them greater relevant information or skills relative to everyone else, such that they will predictably dominate debate and outcomes. The preparation for participation owing to involvement in the daily life of the workplace is essentially equalized. Of course, in real circumstances the procedures of job balancing are not precisely as we describe above but involve a steady meshing and merging of tasks into jobs, with workers grading the overall combinations and bringing these into accord with each other by tweaking the combinations far more fluidly than parceling out all tasks as if from some gigantic menu. But the graphic image conveys the relevant reality.
Now, whether having balanced job complexes is efficient or not, whether it can get economic functions completed with a high level of competence or not, and whether it is compatible with the other institutions of a participatory economy or not, are all matters that have to wait until we have provided a more complete picture of the overall system. But what should be clear already is if it turns out to be preferred and desirable, there is no law of nature or of job definitions that precludes doing as we have suggested to a reasonably high degree of attainment of the end sought. Of course it cannot be perfect. There is no perfect grading of tasks, no perfect meshing of graded tasks into balanced jobs, and thus no perfect balancing. This is a social dynamic enacted by human beings in complex circumstances. But short of perfection, we can easily balance job complexes in each workplace quite well, tweaking the results over time to get an ever more just allocation. Still, even recognizing that we could achieve this, and even assuming efficiency and compatibility with the rest of the economy (to be addressed later), there is a problem.
We should add a clarification to avoid a possible confusion. Balancing empowerment across jobs is not the same as balancing the amount or type of intellect required for that job. That is, if you do some highly abstract theoretical physics that only two other people on Earth can understand, your activity is not necessarily immensely more empowering than my helping decide how we can best build automobiles or when the chef at a restaurant decides how to best cook a meal. If it were simply a question of intellect, then arguably no amount of balancing is going to get me and Hawking equalized. Thinking about unified fields requires too much intellect to balance. But when we are talking about empowerment, there are empowering tasks in all kinds of workplaces, including those that involve figuring out how to best do other jobs, how to best satisfy consumers, how to plan for the future, etc., and thinking about elementary particles or cosmic black holes actually is not all that socially empowering.
In balancing job complexes within each workplace for equal empowerment, the goal was to prevent the organization and assignment of tasks from preparing some workers better than others to participate in decision-making at that workplace. But balancing job complexes within workplaces does not guarantee that work life will be equally empowering across workplaces. One workplace could average out at 7, another at 14, to use the hypothetical example from earlier, or at 3 and 18, for that matter. In such cases, those in the more empowering industries would be far better able to manifest their preferences throughout the broader economy. Indeed, over time, they could further polarize workplaces in the economy, with a subset of workplaces housing all the most empowering jobs and with the least empowering work ghettoized off into (huge) disempowering and menial workplaceswith the former of course overseeing and ruling the latter. Since this is obviously not our aim, we deduce that establishing conditions for a truly participatory and equitable economy requires cross workplace balancing in addition to balancing within each workplace.
The only way to balance for desirability and empowerment (or even for either alone) across workplaces is to have people spend time outside their primary workplace offsetting advantages or disad- vantages that its average may have compared to the overall societal average. If you work in a coal mine that is a 4, and society is a 7, you get to work considerable time outside the mines in another venue, raising your average to 7. If you work in a research facility that is a 13 in a society whose average is a 7, you would have to work outside that facility a considerable chunk of each week at rather onerous tasks to get down to the overall average of 7. How does a participatory economy calibrate these balances? For that matter, how do people wind up working in a particular workplace in the first place?
Though the full answer requires a full picture of a participatory economy, including its means of allocation, we cannot reasonably go any further regarding job complexes without providing at least some clarification. In a participatory economy, everyone will naturally have the right to apply for work wherever they choose, and every workers council will have the right to add any members they wish (using appropriate decision-making methods, of course). We have no choice but to wait until after describing participatory allocation to analyze when and why workers councils would wish to add or release members, but for now it is sufficient to know that once the economy has a work agenda for the coming period, each workers council may have a list of openings for which anyone can freely apply. So any worker could apply for any opening and move to a new workers council that wants them should they prefer it to their present council.
In this respect, parecon job changing is superficially like changing jobs in a typical capitalist economy. But while the situation looks a bit like a traditional labor market, it is ultimately quite different. First, in a traditional labor market, people generally change employment to win higher pay or to enjoy working conditions generally considered more desirable, not solely conditions they themselves prefer. But since a parecon balances job complexes across as well as within workplaces, and since it remunerates effort and sacrifice (as we will soon describe), people will be unable to attain these traditional goals by changing workplaces. Instead, everyone already will have average job quality and income conditions, and thus also an instance of the best available income and job conditions. On the other hand, if a person would prefer a different group of workmates, or working at a different combination of tasks due to his or her personal priorities and interests, of course she or he might have a very good reason to apply for a new job, perhaps even at a new workplace. However, to the extent that job complexes are balanced and pay is for effort and sacrifice only, personal reasons will be the only motives to move. Conversely, peoples freedom to move to other workplaces will provide a check on the effectiveness of balancing job complexes across workplaces. Higher pay will not be available by changing jobs, nor will objectively better work conditions, since pay and conditions will be balanced.
Just as workers must balance jobs internally in each workplace through a flexible rating process (whose exact character would vary from workplace to workplace), so will delegates of workers from different councils and industries develop a flexible rating process to balance across workplaces. As one plausible solution, there could be job complex committees both within each workplace and for the economy as a whole. The internal committees would be responsible for proposing ways to combine tasks and assign work times to achieve balanced work complexes within workplaces. The economy-wide committees arrange positions for workers in less desirable and less empowering primary workplaces some time in more desirable and more empowering environments, and vice versa. Within a workplace, it would become clear that more fine-tuning of job assignments was required when more and more or fewer and fewer members of a workers council apply for one job or another. Similarly, the need for better balancing of conditions and job complexes across workplaces becomes evident the same way; that is, through excessive (or minimal) applications to switch to one workplace or another.
It should be clear that creating perfectly balanced job complexes is theoretically possible. But can it be done in real life situations? Of course not. We are not talking about pure geometry nor even the engineering of plastics. We are talking about people and social arrangements. But the point is, it can be done quite well, with deviations and errors being only deviations and errors, not systematic biases. Over time errors will not multiply or snowball, but will instead be corrected. And most important, the entire process is democratic. There is no elite that bends everyone else to their will and each person winds up in circumstances collectively agreed upon by procedures respecting their appropriate input. If we combine our best effort at creating balanced job complexes with well-designed democratic councils, we attain a venue favorable to non-hierarchical production relations that will promote equity and participation and will facilitate appropriate voting patterns. Still, you may reasonably wonder, in practical real world situations, could workers really rate and combine tasks to define balanced job complexes within and across workplaces even reasonably well, much less very well as we suggest?
Provided we understand that we are talking about a social process that never attains perfection, but that does fulfill workers own sense of balance, the answer is surely yes.
The idea is that workers within each workplace would engage in a collective evaluation of their own circumstances. As a participatory economy emerged from a capitalist or a market or centrally planned socialist past, naturally there would be a lengthy discussion and debate about the characteristics of different tasks. But once the first approximation of balanced complexes within a workplace had been established, regular adjustments would be relatively simple. For example, if the introduction of a new technology changed the human impact of some tasks, thereby throwing old complexes out of balance, workers would simply move some responsibilities within and across affected complexes to re-establish desirable balance, or they might change the time spent at different tasks in affected complexes, to attain that new balance.
The new balance need not and could not be perfect, just as the old one wasnt, nor would the adjustments be instantaneous, nor would everyone be likely to agree completely with every result of a democratic determination of combinations. And of course individual preferences that deviate from ones workmates preferences would determine who would choose to apply for which balanced job complex. If I am less bothered by noise but more bothered by dust, I will prefer a complex whose rote component is attending noisy machinery rather than a complex with a sweeping detail. You may have opposite inclinations.
In practice, balancing between workplaces would be a bit more complicated. How would arrangements be made for workers to have responsibilities in more than one workplace? Over time, balancing across workplaces would be determined partly through a growing familiarity with the social relations of production, partly as a result of evaluations by specific committees whose job includes rating complexes in different plants and industries, and partly as a result of the pattern of movement of workers. That all this is possible within some acceptable range of error and of dissent ought to be obvious. Those wanting to see a more detailed description of the specific division of tasks into jobs in and across some hypothetical workplaces will have that chance in part III of this book, and can do so at the parecon website (www.parecon.org), as well.
Basically, participatory economic job complexes would be organized so that every individual would be regularly involved in both conception and execution tasks, with comparable empowerment and quality of life circumstances for all. The precision of the balance would depend on many factors, and would improve over time. At any rate, no individual would ever permanently occupy positions that would present him or her unusual opportunities to accumulate influence or knowledge. Every individual would be welcomed to occupy positions that guaranteed him or her an appropriate amount of empowering tasks. In essence, the human costs and benefits of work would be equitably distributed. Corporate organization would be relegated to the dustbin of history, with council organization and balanced job complexes taking its place. The question that remains, of course, is whetherin concert with other essential innovations of a participatory economyemploying balanced job complexes would have as much positive impact for solidarity, equity, diversity, and self-management as we seek, whether this would permit effective utilization of talents and resources to produce desired outputs, and also whether it would have other undesirable effects that mitigated these virtues. We address these questions in upcoming chapters.