Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Antar in Libertopia: A Technoprogressive Dialogue on the Constitution of Liberty, Excerpted and Slightly Adapted from Kim Stanley Robinson's Blue Mars

I have been re-reading (for possibly the fifth time, I've lost count over the years) Kim Stanley Robinson's magisterial Mars Trilogy. I wanted to refresh my sense of the trilogy's structure and themes, since I'm hoping to teach a course next year in the Rhetoric Department at Berkeley devoted entirely to Robinson's three Green trilogies, the Mars Trilogy, the most recent Science in the Capital Trilogy, and his earlier Three Californias.

Anyway, I was reading a section of "A New Constitution," from Volume Three, this morning in the bath (hey, it's lazy Sunday!). In this chapter the plotting of the book is more or less suspended, and the narrative is propelled forward by little but the dynamic interplay of the characters we have grown to love as they argue politics and ideas for page after page.

In the section that I'm talking about, a stretch of pages is devoted to an exchange between one of the First Hundred -- a superannuated first-generation settler on Mars, well over a century old in consequence of medical techniques he himself had a hand in the creation of -- and a much younger Mars-born delegate to the Constitutional Convention that has been convened in the aftermath of a Revolutionary upheaval. The exchange functions very much in the manner of a Platonic Dialogue, with the elder Vlad in the role of Socrates, and Antar the misguided youngster ripe for elenchus. The subject of the Dialogue is one that is especially dear to my heart, the skewering of libertopian idiocies and their assumptions and the proposal of sensible (techno)progressive alternatives to them.

I have undertaken to reproduce the rhetorical and theoretical content of the exchange as such a Socratic dialogue, properly speaking, by removing plot specific references and narrative devices, and focusing simply on the dialogic delineation of ideas. Antar remains as a character, but as is usual in such dialogues functions as little more than an ineffectual bowling pin for Vlad's extended formulations. I'd like to think were this a more proper Socratic dialogue the exchange would end with Vlad having seduced Antar not only to his way of thinking but into his bed, earning a nice healthy fuck from the youthful Antar to let everbody know there are no hard feelings all around (one suspects from the concluding rant of Alcibiades in the Symposium that Socrates would enjoy inverting the usual Greek terms of intercourse in such a circumstance: but that controversial, or possibly wishful, claim of mine is one for another time). As it happens, Robinson takes the plot elsewhere, or at any rate does not record whether or not Vlad and Antar found their way to an exchange of fluids in the aftermath of this exchange of ideas (one strongly suspects, not!).

Needless to say, I strongly recommend that anyone who has not read Robinson's trilogy do so, especially if they find technoprogressive formulations appealing, are interested in the utopian green imaginary, or simply crave science fiction that manages to be both "hard" and "literary" at once as these rather dim designations put it. Come what may, on to Antar in Libertopia!


Delegates at the Table of Tables at the Martian Constitutional Congress squabble over the legal institutionalization of the provisions of eco-economics formulated by Vlad Taneev and Marina Tokareva. These eco-economics governed the Pre-Revolutionary Economic Underground and many delegates want to codify them into the new Constitution. Some delegates are complaining that eco-economics are too radical, because they impinge on local autonomy, others because they have more faith in traditional capitalist economics than in any new system. Antar spoke often for this last group.

Antar: This new economy that's being proposed is a radical and unprecedented intrusion of government into business….

Vlad: What you said about government and business is absurd…. Governments always regulate the kinds of business they allow. Economics is a legal matter, a system of laws. So far, we have been saying… that as a matter of law, democracy and self-government are the innate rights of every person, and that these rights are not to be suspended when a person goes to work. You… do you believe in democracy and self-rule?

Antar: Yes!

Antar: Do you believe in democracy and self-rule as the fundamental values that government ought to encourage?

Antar: Yes!

Vlad: Very well. If democracy and self-rule are the fundamentals, then why should people give up these rights when they enter the workplace? In politics we fight like tigers for freedom, for the right to elect our leaders, for freedom of movement, choice of residence, choice of what work to pursue -- control of our lives, in short. And then we wake up in the morning and go to work, and all those rights disappear. We no longer insist on them. And so for most of the day we return to feudalism. That is what capitalism is -- a version of feudalism in which capital replaces land, and business leaders replace kings. But the hierarchy remains. And so we still hand over our lives' labor, under duress, to feed rulers who do no real work.

Antar: Business leaders work. And they take the financial risks --

Vlad: The so-called risk of the capitalist is merely one of the privileges of capital.

Antar: Management --

Vlad: Management is a real thing, a technical matter. But it can be controlled by labor just as well as by capital. Capital itself is simply the useful residue of the work of past laborers, and it could belong to everyone as well as to a few. There is no reason why a tiny nobility should own the capital, and everyone else therefore be in service to them. There is no reason they should give us a living wage and take all the rest we produce. No! The system called capitalist democracy as not really democracy at all. That is why it was able to turn so quickly into the [corporatist] system, in which democracy grew ever weaker and capitalism ever stronger. In which one percent of the population owned half of the wealth, and five percent of the population owned ninety-five percent of the wealth. History has shown which values were real in that system. And the sad thing is that the injustice and suffering caused by it were not at all necessary, in that the technical means have existed since the eighteenth century to provide the basics of life to all.

So. We must change. It is time. If self-rule is a fundamental value, if simple justice is a value, then they are values everywhere, including in the workplace where we spend so much of our lives…. [E]veryone's work is their own, and the worth of it cannot be taken away… [T]he various modes of production belong to those who created them, and to the common good of the future generations… [T]he world is something we all steward together… [W]e have developed an economic system that can keep all those promises. That has been our work… In the system we have developed, all economic enterprises are to be small cooperatives, owned by their workers and by no one else. They hire their management, or manage themselves. Industry guilds and co-op associations will form the larger structures necessary to regulate trade and the market, share capital, and create credit.

Antar: These are nothing but ideas. It is utopianism and nothing more.

Vlad: Not at all… The system is based on [historical] models… and its various parts have all been tested… and have succeeded very well. You don't know about this partly because you are ignorant, and partly because [corporatism] itself steadfastly ignored and denied all alternatives to it. But most of our microeconomy has been in successful operation for [decades] in the Mondragon region of Spain… These organizations were the precursors to our economy, which will be democratic in a way capitalism never even tried to be."

[Another delegate objects from the opposite direction, noting that eco-economics seems to be abandoning the very possibility of the gift-economy.}

Vlad: Pure gift exchange co-exis[s] with a monetary exchange, in which neoclassical market rationality, that is to say the profit mechanism, [is] bracketed and contained by society to direct it to serve higher values, such as justice and freedom. Economic rationality is simply not the highest value. It is a tool to calculate costs and benefits, only one part in a larger equation concerning human welfare. The larger equation is called a mixed economy, and that is what we are constructing here. We are proposing a complex system, with public and private spheres of economic activity. It may be that we ask people to give, throughout their lives, about a year of their work to the public good… That labor pool, plus taxes on private co-ops for use of the land and its resources, will enable us to guarantee the so-called social rights we have been discussing -- housing, health care, food, education -- things that should not be at the mercy of market rationality. Because la salute non si paga, as the Italian workers used to say, Health is not for sale!

Antar: So nothing will be left to the market.

Vlad: The market will always exist. It is the mechanism by which things and services are exchanged. Competition to provide the best product at the best price, this is inevitable and healthy. But… it will be directed by society in a more active way. There will be not-for-profit status to vital life support matters, and then the freest part of the market will be directed away from the basics of existence toward nonessentials, where venture enterprises can be undertaken by worker-owned co-ops, who will be free to try what they like. When the basics are secured and when the workers own their own businesses, why not? It is the process of creation we are talking about.

Jackie [another young delegate, allied to Antar]: What about the ecological aspects of this economy that you used to emphasize?

Vlad: They are fundamental… [T]he land, air, and water… belong to no one… [W]e are the stewards of it for all the future generations. This stewardship will be everyone's responsibility, but in case of conflicts we propose strong environmental courts, perhaps as part of the constitutional court, which will estimate the real and complete environmental costs of economic activities, and help to coordinate plans that impact the environment.

Antar: But this is simply a planned economy!

Vlad: Economies are plans. Capitalism planned just as much as this, and [corporatism] tried to plan everything. No, an economy is a plan.

Antar: It’s simply socialism returned.

Vlad: [This] is a new totality. Names from earlier totalities are deceptive. They become little more than theological terms. There are elements one could call socialism in this system, of course. How else remove injustice from economy? But private enterprises will be owned by their workers rather than being nationalized, and this is not socialism, at least not socialism as it was usually attempted on Earth. And all the co-ops are businesses -- small democracies devoted to some work or other, all needing capital. There will be a market, there will be capital. But in our system workers will hire capital rather than the other way around. It's more democratic that way, more just. Understand me -- we have tried to evaluate each feature of this economy by how well it aids us to reach the goals of more justice and more freedom. And justice and freedom do not contradict each other as much as has been claimed, because freedom in an unjust system is no freedom at all. They both emerge together. And so it is not so impossible, really. It is only a matter of enacting a better system, by combining elements that have been tested and shown to work. This is the moment for that. We have been preparing for this opportunity for… years. And now that the chance has come, I see no reason to back off just because someone is afraid of some old words.

8 comments:

Utilitarian said...

"the skewering of libertopian idiocies and their assumptions and the proposal of sensible (techno)progressive alternatives to them."
I'm all for skewering libertopian idiocies, but these are sensible alternatives?!? The speech seems more like a reflection of quasi-Marxist religious belief, prized over and above the happiness of the workers (and non-workers are people too!)

"There is no reason why a tiny nobility should own the capital, and everyone else therefore be in service to them. There is no reason they should give us a living wage and take all the rest we produce."
Suppose you hire a young writer of middling ability, whose best work elsewhere would be worth $10/hr, as a proofreader for $15/hr (although you would have paid as much as $20 before proofing yourself). Has the proofreader been enserfed?

"In which one percent of the population owned half of the wealth, and five percent of the population owned ninety-five percent of the wealth."
Most of this is explained by the wide variance in labor income, with some (especially skilled, difficult, demanding, unpleasant, or otherwise hard to secure) labor worth much more than other labor. The median English student's writing simply is not of great quality.

"In the system we have developed, all economic enterprises are to be small cooperatives, owned by their workers and by no one else. They hire their management, or manage themselves."
Law or accounting partnerships and other worker owned businesses are not much nicer places on account of their ownership structure. Forcing workers to hold hugely unbalanced portfolios concentrated on their cooperatives mean that they are subject to great unsecurity and uncertainty, as if something goes wrong with the business they suffer in both wealth and income. Further nondiversifiable differences in performance between cooperatives will enhance income inequality.

"It may be that we ask people to give, throughout their lives, about a year of their work to the public good… That labor pool, plus taxes on private co-ops for use of the land and its resources, will enable us to guarantee the so-called social rights we have been discussing -- housing, health care, food, education -- things that should not be at the mercy of market rationality. Because la salute non si paga, as the Italian workers used to say, Health is not for sale!"
Those sectors and the services that enable them to be delivered (finance, transportation, retail etc) compose a majority of the economy today. [And don't claim that much of the work in the retail and financial sectors does not massively contribute to wealth, e.g. massive Wal-Mart's development of logistics, or the evaluation of creditworthiness to enable borrowing to smooth consumption when an outright gift is not available.] If that economy's productivity is massively slashed to prevent equity investment by outsiders, these basic needs would have to be supplied at a reduced quality, ceteris paribus.

"There will be not-for-profit status to vital life support matters, and then the freest part of the market will be directed away from the basics of existence toward nonessentials,"
Like food, clothing, and shelter? Those are dealt with pretty well by regulated markets today. I haven't read the book, so maybe this relates to limited oxygen levels or some such, but it seems like a bad distinction rather than talking about particular market failures and the costs and benefits of regulated markets, these non-profits (which can succeed when subjected to pressure to perform and management can be fired by stakeholders, e.g. the Air Traffic Control Corporation in Canada), or other institutional arrangements.


"Vlad: They are fundamental… [T]he land, air, and water… belong to no one… [W]e are the stewards of it for all the future generations. This stewardship will be everyone's responsibility, but in case of conflicts we propose strong environmental courts, perhaps as part of the constitutional court, which will estimate the real and complete environmental costs of economic activities, and help to coordinate plans that impact the environment."
This is pretty much all platitudes without any substantive proposals, so I can't say whether it means anything more (or less) limits on pollution, compensation for negative externalities, etc.

"And all the co-ops are businesses -- small democracies devoted to some work or other, all needing capital. There will be a market, there will be capital. But in our system workers will hire capital rather than the other way around."
Workers forced to rely solely on debt finance will often face an insurmountable hurdle, since they could not offer sufficient collateral and would have weak incentives to repay. Partnerships face constraints on their ability to borrow because individual partners may depart, leaving the remainder holding the tab. For a group of writers or computer programmers bankruptcy as a co-op would be highly desirable (they can just start up again under a new name) if any difficulties whatsoever manifested. To enable debt financing creditors would have to be able to garnish former workers' wages at new co-ops (which could render them too impoverished to buy into a new co-op without public subsidy, and if taxes pay off the debts of poorly thought out and executed business ventures then you will get a LOT of them at enormous social cost.


"It's more democratic that way, more just."
This seems to me to be just a mystical attachment to an organizational form with huge disadvantages (there are worker-owned co-ops in the world, but the form hasn't spread like wildfire because workers often find the costs exceed the benefits. Some people don't like a hugely politicized workplace. When every hire has to buy or be given a share in the co-ops's profits and management hiring and firing become less efficient (and subject to corruption or favoritism), making it harder to find employment or allocate people to the areas where they perform best.

Taxation of the broad economy to fund social insurance, public goods, and benefits for the disadvantaged while making use of effective regulation to protect public safety is a proven model. It can be combined with a strong economy capable of providing modern abundance, health care, etc.

This model, however would greatly reduce wealth (global data on the effects of modest improvements in capital allocation are striking here, e.g. in India and China) while forcing workers into often unwelcome financial positions and creating strong inequality between co-ops. Despite your critique of 'Nanosanta' and the like, the techniques to sustain modern prosperity with this system do not yet exist. And when they do, why not just keep raising an unconditional basic income while levying a wealth tax (increasing both to taste)? If you don't have to work at all, then you can't be forced by economic necessity to work for a 'capitalist' (like a union pension fund or university endowment).

Maybe I have just (greatly) over-analyzed a literary quote, but the idea that we should sacrifice the general well-being to attack a quasi-religious bogeyman of Capital is very unappealing.

Greg in Portland said...

I have to say I agree with a lot of what Utilitarian said here. I tend to think that the main thing wrong with current capitalism is its compulsory nature and the fact that for most the cost of not playing the capitalists' game is loss of even the most basic necessities. Basically, it's work for capitalists or live under a bridge. With a sufficiently generous BIG the capitalists' game turns into just a sort of complicated role playing and you can truly take it or leave it as you like. It becomes little more than D&D with capitalists as DMs. That's my utopia. Not a return to pre civil war Spain. Then again maybe the Martians are just being aesthetes here. Mars does look a little like Andalusia :)

Dale Carrico said...

I'm all for skewering libertopian idiocies, but these are sensible alternatives?!?

Well, skewering idiocies is a different thing from proposing alternatives, and if it is true that you are for the former it is interesting that you focus on the failures, by your lights, of the latter -- which, given the amount of space devoted to the former versus the latter in the piece itself, feels a bit like a distraction from its focus.

For example, Robinson nicely skewers the claim that markets exist apart from regulation and are hampered by "external intervention" into it, skewers the insistence that there is no alternative to neoliberal figurations of markets (Thatcher's hideous TINA lie with its iterminable sequelae), skewers the claim that risk is a burden rather than a privilege of capital, skewers the notion that an elite minority is inherently better suited than is the laboring majority to engage in the technical work of management, skewers the rhetoric that would tar with the brush of some facile and hysterical accusation of Stalinist socialism any proposal to the left of Grover Norquist, and so on.

The stuff on co-ops, to which I will turn in a moment, aren't really the focus of the piece in my reading of it, indeed they largely are offered up as a response to the charge that nothing other than "free market" capitalism has ever successfully been tried since the industrial era, when clearly there have been interesting democratizing experiments to the contrary. To foreground that section -- while I personally agree it is interesting and fun to argue about -- does seem to direct one's focus away from the real substance of the piece as an anti-libertopian intervention (something I understand you would approve of from your initial comment, after all).

The speech seems more like a reflection of quasi-Marxist religious belief, prized over and above the happiness of the workers (and non-workers are people too!)

I have no idea what might be contained under the heading of "quasi-Marxist" for you. Marx wrote an enormous amount, and I have read an enormous amount of it with sprawling more enormous amounts remaining unread by me, and yet I can tell you that Marx's theory had many turns and developments, most of which have generated their own schools and extensions. Definitely Robinson's Vlad seems to be located in the eco-socialist left, perhaps nearer to somebody like Murray Bookchin than Marx, strictly speaking.

I am very curious that you attribute "relgiosity" to these views, however, and this clearly is a strong impression for you because later you discern "mystical attachment" in it. Could you explain that a bit more? As you can tell from my Superlative Critiques I am enormously concerned when religious attitudes derange the modes of rationality to which they do not properly apply (scientific, ethical, and political modes as opposed to moral and esthetic modes, as I have discussed extensively elsewhere). You seem to suggest that a similar thing is happening here, but I fail to see the evidence for it.

Neither do I see any evidence at all for your accusation that these policies denigrate the happiness of workers or fail to recognize the "humanity" of non-workers. Clearly, the explicit reasons this character is making the proposals he does is because he wants to better facilitate the happiness of workers precarized and exploited under capitalism and to secure the health, education, and legal recourse of all people, whatever their status -- my own sense is that he would advocate different proposals should the ones he is recommending fail to achieve these ends. What makes you think he holds opposite values? Or is it just that you think everybody benefits most when unaccountable elite minorities control everything? (That sounded more polemical than I intended -- when did you stop beating your wife, Senator! But you know what I mean, right?) It is hard to believe you would think such a thing, given the arguments you have made on other occasions, and so I must admit that I am a bit perplexed by your sense of the motivations in play here.

"[O]ne percent of the population owned half of the wealth, and five percent of the population owned ninety-five percent of the wealth."

Most of this is explained by the wide variance in labor income, with some (especially skilled, difficult, demanding, unpleasant, or otherwise hard to secure) labor worth much more than other labor.

Again, are you suggesting that the five percent of the planetary population that controls ninety-five percent of the wealth (these numbers being debatable in their specifics, but palpably obscene in general) does so because they are that much smarter, more capable, more willing to do difficult or unpleasant work than those who do not? If you are, I just disagree with you on this. I think I must be misreading your intent -- reading it through the lens of so many debates I've had in the past with libertopians, Social Darwinists, Randroids, Malthusians, and such.

The median English student's writing simply is not of great quality.

I did not introduce the figure of the English student into this discussion, nor did Robinson. I daresay most English students -- however great or not their writing and other talents are compared to the titans of science or industry or whomever else one might care to distinguish them from -- are fairly privileged people compared to the precarious folks who would surely preoccupy Vlad's, or Robinson's, or my own attention when we would seek to stymie the ugly bloodthirsty engines of neoliberal corporate-militarism.

Forcing workers to hold hugely unbalanced portfolios concentrated on their cooperatives mean that they are subject to great unsecurity and uncertainty, as if something goes wrong with the business they suffer in both wealth and income.

The specter of force always applied to the poor worker coerced into having a voice in their workplace as opposed to being a silent powerless cog in the corporate hierarchy seems, I must say, a little weird to me. But, I can cheerfully agree with you that workers who want to be feudal serfs should surely be able to find their way to such an arrangement if they truly desire it. I'm sure sex-clubs catering to these tastes will thrive in secular democratic utopias as they do in relatively secular democratic societies now. I don't see a contrary attitude expressed in the piece, frankly, but I guess it's fair enough to demand clarification on the question. People shouldn't be forced into entrepreneurship against their taste or temperament. I think Robinson would agree with that.

Further nondiversifiable differences in performance between cooperatives will enhance income inequality.

It seems to me that this result is anticipated and celebrated in the piece -- with the proviso that progressive taxation restrain the emergence of inequalities sufficient to threaten democratic equity. I may be misunderstanding your point, though.

[F]inance, transportation, retail... compose a majority of the economy today. [And don't claim that much of the work in the retail and financial sectors does not massively contribute to wealth, e.g. massive Wal-Mart's development of logistics, or the evaluation of creditworthiness to enable borrowing to smooth consumption when an outright gift is not available.] If that economy's productivity is massively slashed to prevent equity investment by outsiders, these basic needs would have to be supplied at a reduced quality, ceteris paribus.

Even in the sketchy terms offered up in the piece (which, I remind you again, was a critical intervention skewering libertopian rhetoric more than a detailed blueprint proposing alternatives in my sense of it) it was admitted that firms would seek to attract outside investors.

And even though you have asked me not to, I must say (I must! I just must!) that I do question the real benefit to commonwealth arising out of prevailing retail and financialization models. Introduce something like a Triple Bottom Line criterion for quantifying what you are calling "productivity" and I daresay the picture you are sketching looks very different very quickly.

Like food, clothing, and shelter? Those are dealt with pretty well by regulated markets today.

Hence all the homelessness, foreclosures, sweatshop labor, and unwholesome obesity-making foodstuffs here in good ol' free market central. I guess that comes off as ridiculously polemical too. Don't take offense, I'm just not completely getting where you are coming from here.

"Vlad: They are fundamental… [T]he land, air, and water… belong to no one… [W]e are the stewards of it for all the future generations. This stewardship will be everyone's responsibility, but in case of conflicts we propose strong environmental courts, perhaps as part of the constitutional court, which will estimate the real and complete environmental costs of economic activities, and help to coordinate plans that impact the environment."

This is pretty much all platitudes

They sure seem to me better than the platitutes that articulate prevailing public discourse on these questions!

without any substantive proposals,

That's true -- even though, once again, I think it is a little unfair to criticize a piece doing one sort of thing that needs doing (skewering libertopian assumptions) for not doing some other thing that also needs doing (offering up substantial proposals to ensure necessary alternatives are implemented).

Workers forced to rely solely on debt finance will often face an insurmountable hurdle, since they could not offer sufficient collateral and would have weak incentives to repay.

Is this a criticism directed at the democratic economy sketched in Robinson or directed at the oligarchic economy we are living in here and now? :)

For a group of writers or computer programmers bankruptcy as a co-op would be highly desirable (they can just start up again under a new name) if any difficulties whatsoever manifested.

Do you think this would remain true in a world in which one's basic needs, income, healthcare, shelter, education were guaranteed? What would be the incentive to enter into collaboration or disrupt an ongoing concern in a frivolous way under such a state of affairs? What about risks to reputation arising from such conduct?

Is it really true that most people are assholes, or is it just that we have created institutions that best serve the interests of assholes to the cost of everybody else?

To enable debt financing creditors would have to be able to garnish former workers' wages at new co-ops (which could render them too impoverished

Basic needs are always already met, though, and so impoverishment and the fear of it does not fuel the economic system in Robinson's sketch.

to buy into a new co-op without public subsidy, and if taxes pay off the debts of poorly thought out and executed business ventures then you will get a LOT of them at enormous social cost.

More so than now? Why? Because people in general are that much more stupid, greedy, corrupt than oligarchs are? I don't get it. It seems to me that most of the for-profit ventures encouraged on Robinson's scenario have the character of peer-to-peer projects -- what one would stand to lose in the failure of a foolish scheme would be a lot of squandered time and energy on the part of the participants.

"It's more democratic that way, more just."

This seems to me to be just a mystical attachment to an organizational form with huge disadvantages

It may be a useful exercise for you to ponder the rhetorical difference s between the two senses of "just" being deployed in Robinson's formulation and then in your response to it.

(there are worker-owned co-ops in the world, but the form hasn't spread like wildfire because workers often find the costs exceed the benefits.

Are you sure? I think for-profit corporate forms are wildly disproportionately subsidized, legitimized, and even valorized by the legal system and popular culture today.

Some people don't like a hugely politicized workplace.

This seems to me a little like the claims one hears that workers don't "want" to join unions, and that low union membership rates are evidence of this, when we all know the level of actual violence, reprisals, costly anti-union indoctrination programs, intimidation of organizers, systemic refusal to follow regulations to protect workers rights to organize, and so on are the real and obvious cause.

Taxation of the broad economy to fund social insurance, public goods, and benefits for the disadvantaged while making use of effective regulation to protect public safety is a proven model. It can be combined with a strong economy capable of providing modern abundance, health care, etc.

I agree with you, especially if it is clear that I mean strongly progressive income taxes (very much including investment income) and progressive property taxes.

This model, however would greatly reduce wealth (global data on the effects of modest improvements in capital allocation are striking here, e.g. in India and China) while forcing workers into often unwelcome financial positions and creating strong inequality between co-ops.

Have you read Harvey on China's implementation of neoliberal policy models (A Brief History of Neoliberalism)? I think your concerns about forcing workers into unwelcome financial positions in a more democratized economic system are rather overstated. I also wonder if it would be true that such a shift from neoliberal into co-operative economic enterprises would really so straightforwardly "reduce wealth" on every model for accounting wealth -- sustainability, social stability, human rights, wealth disparity, general happiness index, and so on.

Despite your critique of 'Nanosanta' and the like, the techniques to sustain modern prosperity with this system do not yet exist.

I don't agree with this. I think the resources and knowledge exist sustainably to meet basic human needs in working participatory democracies right here and now (and have done for well over a century).

And when they do, why not just keep raising an unconditional basic income while levying a wealth tax (increasing both to taste)? If you don't have to work at all, then you can't be forced by economic necessity to work for a 'capitalist' (like a union pension fund or university endowment).

Well, yes, that is my own personal vision. As one see in my Technoprogressivism essay, Basic Income, Universal Healthcare (consensualized rather than optimized), and lifelong Education and Retraining are my own barebones program to fulfill the vision of economic democracy. I do also think we should repeal the sociopathic legal fiction of corporate personhood, and make all "defense" non-profitable. To be honest, my own expectation, from a survey of the emergence of peer-to-peer formations, is that something like Vlad's landscape of co-ops would predominate rather quickly if those five campaigns were implemented.

Maybe I have just (greatly) over-analyzed a literary quote,

You are talking to a person for whom that is a literal impossibility!

but the idea that we should sacrifice the general well-being to attack a quasi-religious bogeyman of Capital is very unappealing.

Well, I certainly second that emotion. But, as you can see from all this, I simply don't see in the piece what you saw there. And, I hope you don't take offense at my strong response to your response -- I mean you no disrespect at all, and have no clear sense of your political commitments from your response. Thanks for an enjoyable and clarifying exchange, and I look forward to hearing how I have misunderstood you or am wrong in my assumptions otherwise!

Utilitarian said...

"Well, skewering idiocies is a different thing from proposing alternatives, and if it is true that you are for the former it is interesting that you focus on the failures, by your lights, of the latter -- which, given the amount of space devoted to the former versus the latter in the piece itself, feels a bit like a distraction from its focus."
Briefly, I agree that:

1. Property rights are socially constructed (and ultimately built on bloody conquest).
2. Markets are created and defined by institutions and norms.
3. Income redistribution and social democracy are radically different from Soviet socialism and do not lead to it, the "Road to Serfdom" is a myth.
4. Almost all of a developed-country citizen's wealth and economic product is a result of networks effects with other citizens, their talents, and especially their norms/commitment to maintaining institutional quality through democracy. Taxation is not theft.
5. While environmental quality eventually improves with wealth, following the Kuznets curve, the curve simply reflects social and democratic action to impose and enforce restrictions on polluters. There is little autonomous reduction in pollution from economic growth except incidentally, from more energy-efficient equipment and the like. Libertarians using the Kuznets curve to argue AGAINST the underlying environmental activism are missing the point.
6. Union prevalence would be higher in the United States if employers fully complied with labor laws and refrained from aggressive anti-union tactics.
7. Even very large tax revenues as a portion of the economy need not severely impair economic growth if they are well designed, e.g. the Scandinavian combination of high VAT and progressive personal income taxes with low corporate taxes.
8. Universal health care and a basic income are desirable policies. (However, there are complications for a non-global UBI: an increase in the American foreign aid budget could easily be far more attractive than universal health care for Americans. Universal redistributive and social insurance policies should be truly universal rather than based on morally fraught nation-states.)

Some of the negative associations I read into the mandatory co-op structure come from encountering disturbing True Believers in 'Participatory Economics' in certain groups, e.g. Oxfam.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Participatory_economics

These people thought that cleaning toilets would be 'elevated' under the new system and offered apologetics for the North Korean state and Che Guevara's killings. Worse, in concrete decisions they diverted life-saving resources from Darfur relief to promoting their organizational pattern. From my perspective, this was like seeing people support abstinence-only HIV programs because they see sex as morally 'impure': their motivations were outside my moral repertoire. When I say I see a 'mystical' element, I mean this intrinsic valuation of a structure of firm ownership. Then, analyzing the practicalities and incentives of the scheme, it's also a horrible mess instrumentally.

"Despite your critique of 'Nanosanta' and the like, the techniques to sustain modern prosperity with this system do not yet exist."

"I don't agree with this. I think the resources and knowledge exist sustainably to meet basic human needs in working participatory democracies right here and now (and have done for well over a century)."
I said that the techniques to sustain current prosperity while adopting an economic system requiring each worker to hold a pro rata equity stake in her firm, while allowing no outside equity investment were insufficient. Income, housing, food, and medical guarantees could certainly be made universal today.

Dale Carrico said...

Briefly, I agree that: 1-7... Income, housing, food, and medical guarantees could certainly be made universal today."

I knew you were a sensible fellow!

Some of the negative associations I read into the mandatory co-op structure come from encountering disturbing True Believers in 'Participatory Economics' in certain groups...

The light dawns. I hesitate to overgeneralize about Pareconites, but let's say I know precisely the sort of thing to which you refer here.

I said that the techniques to sustain current prosperity while adopting an economic system requiring each worker to hold a pro rata equity stake in her firm, while allowing no outside equity investment were insufficient.

Okay. I think "requiring" would be more like "enabling and incentivizing" in the Robinsonian sketch, and rather than "allowing no outside investment" I think the scenario "assumed outside investment would be solicited." Probably wouldn't allay all fears, and probably is open to interpretation, but that's my sense of things.

Best to you!

Utilitarian said...

"rather than "allowing no outside investment" I think the scenario "assumed outside investment would be solicited." Probably wouldn't allay all fears, and probably is open to interpretation, but that's my sense of things."

I carefully chose the words 'equity investment,' and you deleted the 'equity' in your response. The scheme describe co-ops as 'renting capital' at some price/interest rate without giving those supplying the capital a share of profits or management rights. That's pretty unambiguously a pure debt market.

If the scheme were implemented, I would expect Islamic finance style BS (since this is the exact mirror-image of the Islamic prohibition on riba/interest without equity) attempts to work around the prohibition, leading either to a better investment market with hypocrisy or tighter controls.

"I think "requiring" would be more like "enabling and incentivizing" in the Robinsonian sketch"
Again, I haven't read the original book, but what's presented here is described as a legal order ensuring that "all economic enterprises are... owned by their workers and by no one else." If they take that commitment seriously, then that must mean a ban on outside equity investment, and requiring workers to relinquish their stakes when they leave or retire or the like. I don't see any textual grounds to assume that this political program would be in any way faint-hearted. (I also don't like placing my trust in ideologues' unwillingness to follow through on dogma in general.)

Dale Carrico said...

Hmmm. On your first remaining objection here, I'll concede the force of your point. I'm pretty sure I agree with what you are saying here. On the second, perhaps it is my reading of the larger work that colors my sense that there is much more wiggle room than you are finding evidence for in the passage itself. Be that as it may, if you were right in your assessment then I'll concede the force of your judgment on that one, too (although I'm still thinking about that one a bit). Again, I think the piece is most enjoyable as a critique of default libertopian rhetoric than as a detailed sketch of a workable utopian alternative to libertopia (on Mars!).

Utilitarian said...

"than as a detailed sketch of a workable utopian alternative to libertopia (on Mars!)."
That's beautiful.