Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Strict Equality vs Parsoc

Let me argue strict equality against the participatory society ("parsoc" for short). Firstly, it should be noted that the systems are quite similar, and, as I have said previously, the supporters of both should find common ground and campaign together for a less capitalistic and hierarchical world. This is pretty academic at the moment as I’m the only supporter of strict equality, with only my sad self to be equal with:-)

I am taking parsoc to mean parecon plus Stephen Shalom's parpolity (which Michael Albert seemed to regard as the best option in the political sphere in "Realising Hope"). For those unfamiliar with parecon, there is an overview on Wikipedia and parpolity is described in Shalom's article "Parpolity and Indirect Elections". Those unfamiliar with strict equality may want to refer to my article "Strict Equality" on this site.

I have boiled my argument for strict equality against parsoc down to six reasons and put them in order of importance.


To explain why I think strict equality's lawmaking juries are preferable to parsoc's nested councils I should go back to the philosophical basis for my views. This will also help explain my other reasons. I adhere to a utilitarian ethos (hedonistic "total view" version). This makes me rate political systems according to how they contribute to the future amount of happiness/lack of misery in the universe. The main factor contributing to future happiness/lack of misery that we can affect is the sustainability of the human race, as no human race means vastly less future happiness/lack of misery than there might otherwise be. I believe that the safest road to a sustainable future (albeit by no means a certain one) in the political sphere is by minimising hierarchies of power. This is because if you have a minority who have qualified to be the most powerful they will either have a more aloof or more competitive attitude, either way more selfish than the average person, leading to less sane decisions for humanity in the long-term.

So, what I want to see in the political sphere is a system with as much democracy as possible, or to view it another way, as little hierarchy of power as possible (I see these as two ways of viewing the same thing). I think that strict equality's lawmaking juries (see my article Strict Equality, Section 3, "Lawmaking" for a description of this) viewed either in terms of maximisation of democracy or of minimisation of hierarchies, do a pretty good job. In terms of democracy, the perfectly democratic system would pass laws which represent the average person’s opinion on those matters. The lawmaking jury system does exactly this, taking a large enough sample of ordinary people that their opinion can be said to be the average person's. From the point of view of minimisation of hierarchies, strict equality achieves this fully, with no person being more powerful than anyone else.

Parpolity, on the other hand can, I think, be fairly summarised as being representative democracy with one major difference and four significant safeguards. The major difference is that it has many levels of representatives, with only the lowest representatives being directly chosen by the general public. This is in contrast to our current representative democracies, where the members of parliament are only one level above the people at the bottom. So if we view a hierarchy as a pyramid, parsoc gives us a tall pyramid and our current representative democracy a flat one. I believe that this structure would make it more hierarchical than our present system, reducing the chance of the laws being a reflection of popular opinion, all else equal.

The four safeguards included in parpolity, on the other hand, perhaps make up for the tall pyramid problem. Firstly, the automatic rotation of representatives after a certain amount of time is certainly a step in the right direction. How big a step depends on how long the fixed terms are. If terms are of, say, two weeks, which might be the time it takes to debate and pass or reject a new law, this would make the system similar to the lawmaking juries and radically democratic. If, on the other hand, representatives sit for, say, two years, then this would merely be an improved version of representative democracy. The other three safeguards are less radical. Firstly the immediate recall of unpopular representatives will still leave us with representatives who pass the occasional unpopular law being tolerated by the council below as better than the alternatives. Next, the passing down of close decisions, though an ingenious and entirely welcome suggestion, will only represent the passing down of what the top level believe to be close decisions. Tyrannical decisions, like those to go to war may often be considered to be uncontroversially the right thing to do by those on top, and thus never be passed down. Lastly, the ability of the general public to force a popular referendum exists in Switzerland now and, though again, entirely welcome, would, I think, be seriously hampered by voter apathy.

So the tall pyramid will, I suggest, make things less democratic than under the present system and the four safeguards, though welcome, won't bring parpolity anywhere near the level of democracy exhibited by the lawmaking juries (the only possible exception being the very rapid rotation of representatives which, as I just suggested, would turn the system into something resembling the lawmaking courts anyway, presumably not what Shalom intends). So I would conclude that it's not clear whether parpolity ends up being more democratic than our present system, but clear that it is less democratic and more hierarchical than the lawmaking jury system.

Advocates of parsoc might argue here that my system doesn't mandate lawmaking juries, and complain that I am arguing as if it does. It's true that strict equality doesn't mandate any particular political setup, but I believe that strict equality would lead to lawmaking juries for the following reason. Equality of power effectively outlaws politicians, so society is forced to adopt either direct democracy, some sort of anarchy or perhaps politically separate communities with internal direct democracy. However, after forcing themselves to adopt equality of power, I think the people would want to have some kind of democracy to deal with local and global decisions, and wouldn’t want the hassle of all the people having to make all the decisions all the time, and so would reject a “referendum on everything” approach in favour of the only other form of direct democracy I can think of – direct democracy by lawmaking jury.

Lastly, the parsocist could argue that my system puts too much faith in the judiciary, who could take advantage of the situation and become an elite. I acknowledge that this is a potential danger with my system, but I believe that they would be reined in by the equality (of power) courts, leading to frequent rotation of individuals and (as we have with the current judiciary) clearly defined limits to their role.


My second reason to favour strict equality over parsoc concerns enforcement. After reading two-and-a-half books on parsoc I don't have a clear sense of its enforcement system to keep society equal. I don't know exactly what happens when, say, one person in one of parsoc’s councils or workplaces gets a bit more power or a slightly cushier job than the rest and maybe uses this extra power to get even more. Maybe parsocists have a good answer to this that I’ve missed, but I fear that they are relying on a culture to emerge to keep egalitarian order in their system. I have little faith in this approach and believe that the strictness and clarity of the equality courts are a much better bet for keeping an egalitarian system from succumbing to the all too natural tendency towards hierarchy and corruption.


My next reason in order of importance to favour strict equality over parsoc is that participatory planning employs a nested council approach that is similar to parpolity, and therefore is susceptible to all the deviations from democracy described in Reason 1. This means that, say, the council in charge of farming for the UK may have as little interest in doing the right thing as our current government minister of agriculture or a trade union boss. Strict equality will, on the other hand, deliver an entirely democratic economy, where the development of concentrations of power are always destroyed by the equality courts.


A big difference between parsoc and strict equality is that the former prescribes a particular way of organising economic activities – participatory planning. The latter, on the other hand allows any economic structures that conform to the three equalities, leading, I predict, to most of the economy being performed by non-hierarchical companies (which might go by the name of cooperatives) where all workers act like volunteers do in our current society and an internal direct democracy of some kind operates. Once we create a system where producers are broadly trying to do the right thing (as is the case with strict equality and I believe to a lesser extent parsoc) then I can't see any particular reason why we should mandate a particular form of planning where suggestions go back and forth between different committees in a certain way. Maybe I've missed a crucial point about participatory planning (and I admit I find explanations of it a bit technical and difficult to understand) but nothing I've heard about it strikes me as particularly efficient or necessary. As far as I can see, under strict equality, and to the extent that it is non-hierarchical, under parsoc, producers would be able to see which products are popular, be able to conduct customer surveys if they wish to find out more about what people desire individually or collectively and would be honestly trying to make stuff that they think the world needs.


Another area in which I believe strict equality has an advantage over parsoc is the former’s inclusion of equality of status. While balancing job complexes for desirability may achieve the same thing to some extent in the workplace, it doesn't apply to a person's home and possessions. This means that the competitive ethos may tend to continue under parsoc, as one person may put in extra hours to get a bigger house than his or her neighbour, in order to reap the greater status attached to it. This kind of behaviour obviously will create more damage to the environment, create a competitive culture which might leak into large scale political choices, for example making war more popular and not benefit even the people doing it as a status battle is a zero-sum game.


Lastly, strict equality has the positive feature of being a simpler concept to express - strict equality can be summarised as having three main rules – equality of power (enforced by equality courts) equality of status (enforced by equality courts) and equality of comfort (enforced by equality courts) whereas parsoc has four main rules – balanced job complexes, effort-based pay, participatory planning and nested councils. It's one more rule for parsoc, and more importantly the three rules of strict equality are more similar to one-another. Simplicity may help to keep a system stable once it is up and running and may be more important when trying to popularise a system now.


So these are the six main reasons why I favour strict equality over parsoc. I should finish by reiterating the similarities of the two systems. Balancing jobs for empowerment might be interpreted as strict equality of power or something close to it. Balancing jobs for desirability comes close to the three equalities also. Pay for effort also might approximate the equality of comfort. Parsoc and strict equality would both give us radically improved societies with radically improved chances for the future of the human race.

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