The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Looking Upward

Max Mitchell asks, apropos the last couple of posts: "I wondered if you'd come across Michael Albert's Participatory Economics (ParEcon) and what you thought of it?"

I hadn't, though I'd read a little about it, so I checked it out.

A common response to imagined societies of common ownership is to say: 'I'd like to live there, if it was as you describe, but I don't think it would work' (or 'you haven't shown how it would work'). Many would say that of Iain Banks's Culture, the colony world in James P. Hogan's Voyage from Yesteryear, or William Morris's News from Nowhere. They all handwave towards unspecified machinery. Morris has his 'force engines' humming away behind the greenery. Hogan has his co-ordinating computers and robots. Banks has his Ship Minds. In the Culture, the humans need concern themselves no more with economic co-ordination than the bats in a belfry need follow the deliberations of the General Synod. The same, mutatis mutandis, is true of my own Solar Union. Basically, people live in an immensely fruitful and various tree. Sometimes their councils of elders tell the tree what to do, but it is by no means evident that the tree listens. I'd happily live there myself, but I haven't shown how it would work.

Michael Albert has been slightly miffed to have his utopia encounter the opposite reponse. Most critics, he says, admit that it would work. They just wouldn't like to live there. Although Albert and his colleague Robin Hahnel have tried to answer their critics, it still looks to me as schoolmarmish an anarchy as Le Guin's Annares. The invisible hand of the market and the clenched fist of the revolution give way to the pointing finger of the neighbourhood.

It doesn't evade the economic calculation problem, at least at first glance because the scheme is a market, albeit an apparently cumbersome one. (Though my handwave detector registers a slight disturbance in the air at the step where 'socially agreed algorithms' are applied to work out the 'true social opportunity cost'.)

It's still well worth thinking about, especially for anyone designing a social system for a space habitat or a generation starship (I remark, idly). One SF fan and Parecon advocate has suggested that it fits the data for the Star Trek Federation. A revolutionary Marxist, Joseph Green, has written a rather interesting critique of it, to which Albert has replied. Other critiques, defences, and basic and in-depth expositions can be found at the aforementioned Parecon site. One of its inspirations, which I'm now itching to read, was Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward. This is a socialist utopia in which the people of 21st century America live in skyscrapers, listen to electrically recorded music, work for giant corporations, and spend with credit cards. As far as I know they didn't have to justify their purchases to their neighbours. We are indeed building the new society within the shell of the old.


Post a Comment