Book Review: Looking Forward

Looking Forward: Participatory Economic for the Twenty First Century by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel. Boston, South End Press, 1991
Review by Jeff Stein [Published in Libertarian Labor Review No. 12]

The economy in the Soviet Union is a mess and always has been,” say Marxist theorists Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel. The problem isn’t with having a planned economy, but a matter of who is doing the planning. In the Soviet Union, economic planning was exclusively a power of an elite class of “coordinators” [i.e. the Communist bureaucrats]. Thus it should have come as no surprise whose interest the Soviet economy served. Instead of “coordinatorism” the authors propose a rough model of a system of economic planning in which all workers and consumers would have a voice.

The model proposed by the authors is based upon a sort of democratic bargaining in which yearly production proposals made by workplace councils are compared to yearly consumption request made by consumer councils. A series of “facilitation boards” tabulate all the proposals and revises the “prices” of goods and services in terms of additional labor required to meet consumer demands. Goods and services, for which supply is not expected to meet demands, go up in price and vice versa. The councils then revise their previous proposals based upon the new prices. This continues for several rounds or “iteration” of planning proposals until at some point an exact match is made between projected yearly production and consumption. In order to encourage a convergence towards a final plan, councils are limited by how much they can alter a previous proposal in the next round. Proposals leading in direction of convergence can be changed up to 50%. Proposals leading away from an agreement can only be changed by 25%.

To make sure that everyone benefits equally from their economic model, Albert and Hahnel propose that every worker receive an equal share of consumption and be required to work an equal number of hours. In the former case, this can be modified somewhat by local consumer councils, based upon individual needs. A local consumer council can decide to increase or decrease the share of individual members; as long as the council’s total consumption stays the same. In the case of the latter, the requirement to work an equal number of hours is accompanied by the requirement that the overall quality of working conditions also be equal for all workers. Thus every worker is required to have a “balanced job complex”, made up of an average amount of pleasant tasks and drudgery.

The idea of “balanced job complexes” comes from the traditional socialist rejection of the capitalist division of labor, which condemns most individuals to a life of dull, repetitive, often dangerous hand labor, in order to free up a minority for the more creative and artistic work. Unlike some socialists (principally other Marxists) who merely propose to ameliorate the bad side effects of the division of labor by complex wage schemes, etc., Albert and Hahnel insist on doing away with the division of labor entirely. They argue that the quality of work assignments determines the amount of power an individual worker has within the economy. People with more interesting and enjoyable jobs have more control. As the authors put it, “Classlessness and real rather than formal workplace democracy require that each worker has a job complex composed of comparably fulfilling responsibilities.the half dozen or so tasks that I regularly do must be roughly as empowering as the half dozen or so tasks that you regularly do if we are to participate as equals in council decision making.” (p.19, my emphasis)

I am sure many will find Looking Forward a thought-provoking read. However I am not so sure how useful a guide it is towards creating a self-managed social economy. The general idea of allowing everyone to take part in the planning process is good, although I don’t agree on their specific suggestions for how to implement it. I also think their suggestion for making economic planning into a sort of bargaining process through several sessions or “iterations” could be useful. However in many ways I thought their system to be far less decentralized and “participatory” than they claim it to be. The authors tend to be somewhat vague about the role of the government in enforcing their system. For instance what about a workplace council which finds the final plan so intolerable that they refuse to go along with it? Can they negotiate their own separate agreement, or will some higher authority lock them out of their facilities, cut their rations, or worse? The authors say nothing about the right to strike, not to mention the right of voluntary association, the basis of federalism.

The authors, being Marxists, still tend to be complacent about the potential for authoritarian abuses in their model. Their economic organization requires a large number of “facilitation boards”: CFCBs . “Collective Consumption Facilitation Boards,” CFBs . “Consumption Facilitation Boards”, EFBs . “Employment Facilitation Boards,” HFBs . “Housing Facilitation Boards,” IFBs . “Iteration Facilitation Boards,” PFBs . “Production Facilitation Boards,” and UFBs . “Updating Facilitation Boards.” Supposedly the facilitators have no power other than collecting information and communicating it back to society via computer networks. But there is a tremendous amount of power involved in the control of information and its flow, particularly when this information is presented as being “objective and unbiased” (even more so when it is presented as computer data . about which the authors suggest “computers never lie”). Albert and Hahnel argue that such power would not be abused since the facilitator would (theoretically) be limited to the same consumption levels as everyone else and would therefore have nothing to gain by cooking the data. The authors somehow can not envision any other reason for distorting data other than direct economic benefit, such as ideological bias or pursuit of political objectives.

It is not hard to imagine a “facilitatorism” developing if these boards do not have sufficient safeguards placed upon them. It is somewhat disturbing that Albert and Hahnel seem reluctant to insist upon even the most elementary safeguards, such as limiting the terms of board members, since [as they say] this might interfere with the need for “expertise” at facilitation. This is even more surprising considering that they see expertise in every other job as being so unnecessary that it doesn’t interfere with their “job complex” work rotation scheme at all. Apparently anybody can fly a passenger airline jet but it takes a special breed to “facilitate” society.

Even supposing the facilitator had to be changed once and a while (every four years?), however, “job complexing” would not necessarily end the division of labor. The point of doing away with divided labor is to help workers control their own work, to understand the full implications of their efforts by allowing them to play a role in the design of their products and organize their own jobs as they see fit. Thus the artificial separation between hand work and brain work, labor and management, is abolished. Albert and Hahnel, however, have devised more of a socialist job enrichment scheme in which workers would be required to move between several workplaces each week, doing one task here, one task there, as though the sum total of all these fragmented experiences would give them a sense of control over the entire economy. Spending a few hours each week picking apples will not give a construction worker a better understanding of either agriculture or the construction industry. Nor would it necessarily give farm workers more control of their industry. The influx of thousands of part-time workers with no particular knowledge of or interest in the industry, could make matters worse on the job if the part-timers had an equal vote in workplace matters and were played off against the regular workforce.

The division of labor is not negated by forcing workers to frequently change jobs. Instead of empowering workers, such a scheme could make them even more dependent on the few within industry who “facilitate” all the job rating and the rotation of work assignments. Proudhon made this point in reference to similar suggestions by utopian socialists, “As if to change ten, fifteen, twenty times a day from one kind of divided labor to another was to make labor synthetic.Even if such industrial vaulting was practicable . and it may be asserted in advance that it would disappear in the presence of making laborers responsible and therefore their functions personal . it would not change at all the physical, moral, and intellectual condition of the laborer; the dissipation would only be a surer guarantee of his incapacity and, consequently, his dependence.” (System of Economic Contradictions, Tucker, trans., p.186)

Job complexing could certainly work at the workplace level and may be desirable, but making it a strict requirement for shuffling workers between industries is incompatible with self-management. Albert and Hahnel have the relationship between power and desirable work reversed. People do not lack power at their workplaces because they do the lousy jobs; rather they do the lousy jobs because they lack power. It is far more important to discuss the distribution of decision-making within workplaces and industry, than to try to formulate an elaborate job-sharing scheme which should be left up to the workers themselves. Formal democracy hat hides an informal class system is a valid concern, but I suspect that wherever this exists it may have more to do with a minority having a monopoly on information and education and a “good ol’ boy” political network, than with the absence of a system for rating every job for some abstract enjoyment level.

Another problem with the Albert-Hahnel model is its use of the labor theory of value as a means for determining individual consumption levels. The authors are correct in making the simple observation that if society as a whole wants to consume more, that at any given technological level, some people will have to work more. It only seems fair that those who wish to do the extra consuming should have to do the extra working. A problem comes in determining exactly how much each individual’s labor is worth when production is a complex and interdependent social undertaking. Albert and Hahnel get around this problem with their “job complexing”. In theory, every hour of labor is equal to some average because every worker works at the same average level of intensity under the same average working conditions. (This certainly makes things easier for the statisticians.)

Yet even if it were possible to balance all jobs in society according to some average level (and ignoring the huge bureaucracy this might require), Albert and Hahnel sacrifice the most valid application of the labor theory of value, its connection to technological change, while they retain the theory’s negative side effect, its neglect of ecological devastation. One might say, they have kept the bath water and thrown out the baby.

Let’s take a look at the “baby”, the labor theory of value and its connection to technological change. If you wish to make goods and services more plentiful, you must economize and reduce the amount of labor required to reduce them. According to the Albert-Hahnel model, workers at workplaces who adopt more efficient labor-saving technologies would be “rewarded” by being forced to work the hours they saved at less desirable jobs in other industries. Although it is true that this is no worse than under capitalism where labor-saving technology “rewards” workers with unemployment and subsequent loss of income, the point is that under the Albert-Hahnel model workers would be reluctant to adopt new technology since they would not benefit directly. Under a socialist system it would seem that the best reward for improving productivity would be to allow workers to decrease their work hours with no loss of income.

Albert and Hahnel would probably argue that their system would still reward labor saving efforts by giving a collective benefit to all workers. If workplace A, for instance, cuts its labor needs by say five hours a week per worker, then all workers throughout society would experience some small fraction of that reduction spread out proportionally. So even though the workers at workplace A might have to work part of the time elsewhere, instead of the five hours, it might be only 4 hours and 45 minutes at the other job. Even supposing that is sufficient incentive to keep technological progress going, there still remains the problem of using labor time as a method of pricing commodities and services.

One of the criticisms used by the Marxists against any sort of market system for determining prices has been that the “law of supply and demand” creates”commodity fetishism”. Consumers only concerned with getting the most commodities for the lowest price, ignore the labor involved and that lowest price often is accompanied by maximum labor exploitation. Although a pricing system based on labor time, may make this more apparent to consumers, the labor theory of value ignores the ecological costs of goods: energy, raw materials, wastes generated, natural habitats destroyed, etc. These costs can’t be measured in labor units. Thus instead of “commodity fetishism”, Albert and Hahnel would create a “labor fetish”.

For an example of how their use of the labor theory of value ignores ecological costs, let’s use one of their own examples. In the chapter on “Participatory Allocation”, Albert and Hahnel pose the problem of an increased demand for milk. “Sometimes, however, changes will not balance so that the net increase, say, in milk demand must be communicated to milk producers, who then either produce more . by increasing work intensity, hours worked by each employee, or adding personnel . or refuse to increase production.’ (p.80) Clearly, the assumption is that increased production only requires additional human labor. But how about the cattle that actually produce this milk? How about the extra land that must be set aside to feed the cattle, perhaps wilderness and wetlands destroyed? How about the degraded water supply from the animal wastes in the run-off from feed lots or pastures? These ecological consequences can’t be factored into a labor pricing system, and therefore would not show up on the computer terminals of consumers voting on the yearly economic plan.

Looking Forward has been accused by more orthodox Marxists of being an anarcho-syndicalist inspired proposal. Unfortunately this is not so. Although the authors clearly would like to give local economic bodies some autonomy, there still lingers a central plan and a state authority in the background (one the authors claim will wither away as their system has less “need” for it). Some rather ambiguous remarks made towards that end about Cuba suggest that the authors haven’t strayed too far from the Marxist fold. At best the Albert-Hahnel model could be described as “central-planning by referendum”.

While terms like “councils” and “federations” and anarchist quotes litter the text, there is no clear understanding of these demonstrated by the authors. Looking Forward is a utopian Marxist proposal with little anarchism in it.

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