Filed under: Academia, Anarchism, Internet, Manifesto | Tags: blogs, elitism, expertise, experts, knowledge, scholarpedia, wikipedia
Wikipedia has a very bad reputation for accuracy, and recently it’s been getting a bit of a trashing for its internal politics. Despite this, millions of people continue to use it, and I think it’s easy to see why.
Despite its problems, Wikipedia is a better resource for the public dissemination of knowledge than almost anything else out there. It can be misused by blindly relying on what is included there, but this isn’t a reason to attack Wikipedia. You just have to approach it with the right attitude: a Wikipedia article is a starting point for further research, not an end point. It’s a means for discovering new information as much as a repository of information. We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of this. Discovering that certain knowledge exists is itself a very difficult and important thing to do.
Wikipedia articles are like a quick and dirty map of a knowledge space. They give you a rough idea of what something is about, even if the details may be wrong, and they suggest where you could go to find out more. As a sample, I picked the Wikipedia entry on dynamical systems more or less at random. As well as a decent length article, it has a bibliography of 17 books, including 13 serious academic books at varying levels and 4 popular mathematics books, and 22 internet links, including complete books available online, tutorials and the web pages of relevant research groups.
The nature of knowledge is that it is constantly expanding, and at the moment it is doing so at an incredible rate. Traditional repositories of knowledge like textbooks and encyclopaedias find it difficult to keep up, and are often years if not decades out of date. Wikipedia may be less authoritative than these, but it is often only days after a new discovery is made that a detailed write up is available on wikipedia with links to the original research paper for those who need more accurate information. Textbooks and printed encyclopaedias cannot compete with this.
It is interesting that much of the criticism of Wikipedia comes from those with a vested interest in doing so. The Encyclopaedia Britannica has criticised Wikipedia, and it’s obvious enough why they would do so because they’re in direct competition. But Wikipedia also gets a very bad treatment from the press, by people who are not directly in competition with it. The coverage from The Register (article linked to above) is a case in point. Their stories about Wikipedia are hostile almost to the point of absurdity.
So why is this? My feeling is that it’s because the model of public knowledge espoused by Wikipedia is a direct challenge to the elitist model of knowledge of journalists, and the reason they attack it so strongly is the same as the reason they attack blogs so strongly. Their whole reason for existence is based on the idea that they are providing something through their expertise and knowledge that cannot be obtained elsewhere (for free). If people could just directly access knowledge without going through them, why would be bother doing so? They feel their existence is threatened.
And they are right to feel that way. Wikipedia articles on new scientific discoveries are often much better researched than the write ups in newspapers, and Wikipedia authors often seem to have a better understanding of the discovery in question than the science writers in the newspaper. This shouldn’t be surprising: a newspaper typically only has one or two science writers (and they’re often failed scientists or those with only an undergraduate degree in science), whereas a Wikipedia article could be directly written by someone in that field or even by the original authors themselves. A newspaper article will never cite it’s sources because there isn’t enough space, but most Wikipedia articles do so (and those that don’t are conspicuously flagged).
Similarly, blogs often provide a much broader and more interesting range of political analysis than you find in a newspaper. One of the criticisms that traditional media such as newspapers level at blogs is that they don’t do investigative journalism, but in fact the heavy competition and diminishing revenues of traditional media mean that they are doing less investigative journalism than ever. When the US invaded Iraq, the traditional media were telling us how great everything was because their information was all coming through the filter of the military forces. On the other hand, Iraqi blogs gave a much broader picture.
Getting back to Wikipedia, the journalists and others would be right to criticise Wikipedia if the point of it was to provide an authoritative reference point for factual information. But this really shouldn’t be the point, and the criticism is fundamentally based on an inaccurate picture of the nature of knowledge. Truly authoritative knowledge is very rare. Anyone relying on a single source, however authoritative that source is, is making a serious error. Wikipedia shouldn’t be relied on in this way, but neither should an Encyclopaedia Brittanica entry or even a scientific textbook (and certainly not a newspaper article!). The critics cannot understand this point, or cannot concede it, because their view of themselves is that they are this sort of authority, and so they cannot comprehend the suggestion that this sort of authority is not needed.
So in defending Wikipedia from its critics, I am not – as they might imagine – denying the need for expertise, but attacking the false and elitist nature of expertise that they represent, and defending a view of knowledge that is inherently diverse.
As a postscript, a very interesting project is Scholarpedia. It is inspired by Wikipedia, but has a different balance of openness and expertise by essentially restricting editing rights to academics, with the level of control increasing with scientific status. As the front page of Scholarpedia states, “The approach of Scholarpedia does not compete with, but rather complements that of Wikipedia” (my emphasis). Scholarpedia is a recognition that both expertise and the dynamic, open approach of Wikipedia are important. At the moment, Scholarpedia is restricted to articles about theoretical and computational neuroscience, some mathematical fields, and astrophysics, but it will grow.
I wrote the following article for the H2G2 website. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the footnote links to work in WordPress.
I believe that participatory economics (parecon) is a specific political conception of the type that modern anarchist thought ought to strive for. Although I’m not 100% convinced that the exact system as described below would work, something very much like it must surely be the best hope we have. At the very least, anyone who is interested in knowing about alternatives to capitalism should know about parecon.
Churchill is often misquoted as having said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.  A similar sentiment is sometimes expressed about capitalism: “Socialism was tried in Russia and look what happened there.” It is no longer acceptable to make idealistic utopian claims about how wonderful life would be without capitalism. Anyone proposing an alternative now must say why their idea would work, and address legitimate fears about totalitarianism.
Participatory Economics (parecon) is one such alternative (invented by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel around 1990). As well as proving mathematically that parecon is efficient, they gave good reasons why Russian communism failed and why parecon would not.
This article is too short to cover every aspect of parecon, in particular all of the common objections. At the bottom of this entry is a section on further reading if you want to know more.
So what is Parecon?
Parecon is motivated by four key values: solidary, diversity, equity and self-management. Solidarity means encouraging people to work for the benefit of others as well as yourself. Diversity means giving people more options, for how they work and what they consume. It’s difficult to say what equity means in one sentence, but roughly speaking it’s about fairness and equality of outcomes. Nobody should have substantially more wealth or power than anyone else. Self-management means what it sounds like: everyone has a say in decisions which affect them. Specifically, in parecon this means that everyone should influence decisions in proportion to how much they are affected by them.
It’s not possible to predict how things would actually turn out in an actual parecon, but here are some aspects of what an ideal parecon would be like:
Equality – nobody would be much richer than anyone else. In a parecon equality is not perfect, but there are no groups of people who are systematically poorer than other groups, and differences in income are based on personal choice. You might choose, for example, to work much harder than normal for a few months if you had some particular big thing you wanted to purchase. It would be rare, though, to see one person earning more than twice as much as another.
Classlessness – a parecon society wouldn’t have social classes. It’s not possible for everyone to have equal status – not everyone can be the person who discovers a cure for cancer for example – but there wouldn’t be systematic differences that last through generations. There would be an equality of opportunity.
Work – there would be no bosses. That’s not to say that all organisation would be left to chance, that there’d be no consequences for not working or working badly, etc. The difference would be that everyone would have a say in how their workplace was run, and you would never be entirely subordinate to someone else. There would still be administration and duties, and expertise would play a role, but it wouldn’t be authoritarian.
Planning – a parecon is a planned economy. People would need to engage in planning processes, which would involve meetings and time spent thinking about what you might want to buy in the future (so that it can be produced).
In practice, things never work out like you might hope, and so there’d still be a role for politics in a parecon.
There are three main features of parecon – described below – production, consumption and planning. Production means how people would work and how things would actually get made. Consumption means how people decide what they want and how the things that are produced get divided up. Planning means how we decide what to produce given what people want and how much things cost to produce. It is helpful to have in mind how a capitalist economy arranges things in these respects: most people work in jobs over which they have fairly limited control, typically doing a very specific and often repetitive task; individuals consume what they can afford to buy; there is no overall planning procedure, profitable companies succeed and unprofitable ones go out of business.
In a parecon, every individual is a member of a workers’ council. These can be freely formed by anyone. Roughly speaking, these are the equivalent of companies in a capitalist economy. Within a workers’ council, individuals do a range of tasks as they would in a capitalist company. Where parecon really differs from capitalism in this respect is that everyone works in what are called balanced job complexes (BJCs). What this means is that the range of tasks they do are balanced for desirability, participation and empowerment.
Every BJC should be, on average, equally desirable overall (or equally onerous to put it more pessimistically). Everyone should also have a roughly equal degree of participation in the overall management of their council. Finally, everyone should find their BJC equally empowering overall, which might need some explanation. Some jobs, although they are very hard work and possibly unpleasant in some respects, give the person doing them more control over their lives and more understanding of the institutions and circumstances affecting them. This greater control and knowledge gives them power over others whose work doesn’t ’empower’ them in this way.
In addition to being workers, everyone is also a consumer, and so everyone belongs to a consumers’ council. An individual or family belongs to a neighbourhood council, which in turn belongs to a federation of neighbourhood councils, which in turn, etc., right up to a national consumption council. This hierarchy of consumption exists because there are different types of consumption which affect different numbers of people. Apples and oranges are consumed at an individual level, but when we ‘consume’ education we typically do it along with lots of others.
The amount that an individual can consume is related to their work. In a capitalist system, you work for wages or you accumulate money through ownership, and then you spend that money. Parecon has something similar to wages, but the idea is that you are paid according to the effort and sacrifice you make. So for example, cleaning toilets, it is usually agreed, is more effort and more unpleasant than writing restaurant reviews, and would therefore be paid better in a parecon. In a parecon though, there would not be jobs which are just toilet cleaner and just restaurant critic, because jobs have to be balanced.
There are a few reasons for paying people according to the effort they have put in and sacrifices they have made. The first is a moral one. The effort people make is the only thing they personally have any control over. They can’t control who their parents are, how strong, creative or intelligent they are, but they can choose to work more or less hard. The second is a pragmatic one. There’s no point rewarding people for things about themselves they can’t change, because that doesn’t provide people with any incentives. There is a third reason, to do with class, explained in the section ‘What about Russia?’ below.
Planning in a parecon works through an iterative (repeated) process. Essentially, it starts with everyone giving a rough idea of what they would like to make or consume, and then trying to fit these together. It takes a few ’rounds’ of planning to match the two, and each round gets closer to a perfect match.
The Iteration Facilitation Board (IFB) announces ‘indicative prices’ (basically guesses) at the cost of producing various goods. These guesses might come from how much it cost to produce things last year for example. The consumers’ councils then submit requests for what they would like based on these estimates of the prices. Next, the workers’ councils submit proposals for things to make, including lists of what they would need to use to make them. The IFB takes all this into account, and calculates excess supply or demand, and uses this to recalculate the indicative prices. The consumers’ councils and workers’ councils then revise and resubmit their proposals based on these new prices, and the process repeats until a viable plan is settled on.
But does it work?
It’s difficult to say what it means for an economy to ‘work’. Some ways of organising an economy will be better in some ways and worse in others. But consider this: suppose you could reorganise things so that everyone was better off afterwards, or at least not worse off. If it’s possible to reorganise things like this, then obviously the economy is not efficient. If it’s not possible to do this, then the economy is called Pareto efficient after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto.
Pareto effiency is a minimum standard because obviously any economy that wasn’t Pareto efficient could be improved in an uncontroversial way that made everyone better off. But, it’s not the only important standard for judging how good an economy is. It might be that an economy where one person owned 90% of the wealth and everyone else owned a tiny amount in comparison was Pareto efficient, because any way of increasing the wealth of everyone else would have to take away some of the wealth of that one individual. Still, most people wouldn’t say that such an economy was a good one. In a nutshell – a Pareto efficient economy isn’t necessarily a good one, but an economy that isn’t Pareto efficient is certainly a bad one.
An important result in economic theory is that a ‘perfect’ free market is Pareto efficient. Using the same mathematical theory, Albert and Hahnel have proved that a parecon is also Pareto efficient. So in this sense at least, parecon ‘works’.
One of the critiques of socialism is that if you centralise the economic decision making, you’re giving those decision makers a task that is too difficult for them, and so the result will be inefficient. In free market capitalism, in principle there are no decision makers burdened with such enormously complex decisions. Parecon shares this virtue with free market capitalism. Plans are settled on by the repeated interaction of the producers’ and workers’ councils through the IFB, and this effectively distributes the decision making to everyone (as in capitalism).
A whole economy has never been run along parecon lines, so it’s difficult to say whether or not it would work in practice, even if we know it would work in theory. There are some small companies that run according to the principles of parecon, but the largest employs less than 20 people. There isn’t space here to say anything about the large issue of how a transition to a participatory economy might be made, but because it’s never been tried before, it’s possible that a society that had made that decision might well want to do so gradually, experimenting with these ideas rather than rushing in and attempting to change everything overnight.
What about Russia?
Soviet Russia came into existence through a violent revolution, and fought to stay in existence through an incredibly brutal civil war. The violence continued with the secret police and Gulags. Communism in Russia was born in violence, and its leaders acquired authoritarian habits. Obviously, avoiding violence and emphasising democracy would be of the utmost importance in creating a parecon, and this itself would avoid many of the problems of Russian Communism.
One of the key concepts of Marxism is the notion of class. The bourgeoisie own the means of production (factories, land, etc.), and the proletariat do the actual work. Simplistically, Communism was supposed to create a classless society by getting rid of ownership, and therefore the owning class. Albert and Hahnel argue that this misses out a crucial third class, which they call the coordinator class. These are the people who do not own the means of production, but through their superior knowledge and their place in the workplace exert more control over the economy than the workers. The theory says that whenever you give one group of people jobs that are systematically more empowering than others, where they get more say over the conditions of their work, make important decisions, learn new things and don’t just do rote labour, then this group will become a coordinator class. Once they become a class they have class interests, and they will reorganise the economy in those interests. This creates inequality which undermines the whole point of socialism. There is also the possibility that this class will become a ruling class which is what happened in the USSR.
Parecon strives to be a classless society which avoids coordinatorism by emphasising balanced job complexes, and everyone having a say in decisions to the extent that they are affected by them. Since parecon emphasises participatory, democratic decision making, and prevents the formation of class interests which go against the ideal of equality, Albert and Hahnel argue that it wouldn’t become authoritarian.
- Participatory Economics website, including:
- Parecon books, several of which are available to download free online.
- In defense of parecon, a section devoted to responses to criticisms, which covers most of the common objections to the system.
 What he actually said was “… it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (my emphasis). The difference is subtle but important. The full quote comes from a speech he made to the House of Commons arguing against a bill to reduce the time the Lords could delay a bill from two years to one: “We accept in the fullest sense of the word the settled and persistent will of the people. All this idea of a group of supermen and super-planners, such as we see before us, “playing the angel,” as the French call it, and making the masses of the people do what they think is good for them, without any check or correction, is a violation of democracy. Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of ministers who are their servants and not their masters.” Most forcibly by Margeret Thatcher: “There Is No Alternative.”
 Their book A Quiet Revolution in Welfare Economics was published in 1990, but the ideas were around before then. In particular, South End Press was founded in 1977 based on many of the principles underlying parecon.
 It is worth highlighting, though, that parecon is a system of economics not politics. It could be combined with various different sorts of political systems, although the most appropriate would perhaps be some form of participatory democracy.
 This is sometimes called ‘social consumption’ and it is something that capitalism has difficulty with.
 Which is the opposite of how it works in a capitalist economy.
 A ‘perfect’ free market is one where there are no monopolies, everyone knows everything about the economy, etc. More recent work has shown that an imperfect market (one with monopolies or oligopolies for example, or one where the consumer has less information than the producer) is not Pareto efficient.
 Not really socialism, but centrally planned economies.
 In practice it’s not so simple, as many large corporations such as General Motors have an economic importance as large as the entire economy of some countries.
 The first was South End Press founded in 1977, which publishes radical politics books by people like Noam Chomsky. There are also some coffee shops, bookshops, a newspaper and an internet hosting company. See the parecon website referenced in the main text.
 Some would argue that the Leninist concept of the vanguard made this inevitable.
 Lovers of obscure details might be interested to know that Michael Albert wrote a critique of Marxism entitled What is to be undone?, a reference to Lenin’s pamphlet What is to be done? inspired by Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel of the same name.
 This is not quite the same as the petite-bourgeoisie in Marxist theory. It’s closer to what is called the ‘middle classes’, but again not exactly the same.
Have been busy with work stuff recently which is why there have been so few posts on this blog. This will probably have to be the last one until the new year.
A group of mainly – but not wholly – US political activists have recently created a new organisation, The International Project for a Participatory Society. I highly encourage everyone to look into what they have to say. Their shared idea of what is wrong with society, how it could be better, and how to achieve this feels to me like the best prospect for the left. They do not have a grand philosophical structure like Marxism, but they do have some extremely powerful and insightful ideas (the concept of a participatory economy being probably the most important). Their way of looking at things is instead practical, but still idealistic (a good thing in my opinion).
In this entry, I’m just going to indulge in a little ‘meme’ inspired by something on their site. They asked each of the members to submit responses to five questions – you can see some of them on the site already – and even though I’m not a member and not as yet involved in the IPPS, I thought I’d write my own answers to their questions. Please do write your own too, and don’t feel constrained by writing it in the same way or at such length as I have.
And so, without further ado…
(1) Could you please identify what you think are the core defining features and institutions of society that need to be changed i.e. economic, political, cultural, gender/sexual, ecological, etc.?
First and foremost is capitalism, loosely defined. Certain things about capitalism seem quite unambiguously wrong, and it underlies many of our other problems. This shouldn’t be a surprise – a capitalist society prioritises the pursuit of profit and wealth over everything else. This is not an obscure point. In a capitalist society, anyone who pursues a different goal – a social good for example – in preference to profit and wealth, simply fails. Competition ensures this. This is a basic structural problem with capitalism, but there are also secondary problems. The enormous inequality that is unavoidable in a capitalist society creates class divisions, and these class divisions in turn create political inequalities, and so on.
So for example, I don’t believe it is possible to satisfactorily address climate change within capitalism. The things we could do to stop climate change impact directly on profits and wealth, and so the wealthy and powerful classes, and the corporations, will do everything they can to stop this from happening. If they didn’t, someone else would. That said, we have to try to address climate change within capitalism because realistically the prospects for a global change of economic system within the time frame in which climate change becomes irreversible are remote, and that’s being generous. As another example, I recently wrote about how our society is becoming – or has become – a surveillance society. Government surveillance isn’t a consequence of capitalism directly, but corporate surveillance and the problems of inequality it causes is.
So capitalism is in some the problem, and participatory economics is a practical and radical alternative. The other aspects of the society mentioned are of course hugely important too.
(2) What are your goals for this change, do you seek to reform them, if so with what changes, broadly? Do you seek to fundamentally replace these institutions with some others? If so what do the replacement structures look like, what are their defining features, of course in brief?
As I said, replacing capitalist economics with participatory economics – or at least something very like it – should be our ultimate goal. This is of course a very long term goal, and in the short and medium term we should seek to make reforms, especially those that are consistent with the long term goal. The other major institution that needs to change is our various forms of representative democracy. At the moment, levels of participation are low, barriers to participation are high, and obscure forces act to cause our democracies to favour outcomes which are not in the public interest. Think about the effect of a two-party system in which both parties rely on donations from the wealthy to survive, how could they do anything but support their class interests?
(3) Who do you think the strategic actors are in achieving these goals i.e. political parties, workers, women, queers, immigrants, particular countries or regions, etc?
Very difficult to predict.
(4) What tactics do you see being centrally used in achieving these changes i.e. voting, direct action, media action, strikes, demonstrations, etc.?
Again, this is not something I feel I have a clear grasp of. Rather than talking about tactics, I want to say a quick word about strategy first. The problem – it seems to me – is that we cannot achieve significant changes without addressing fundamental problems such as capitalism. We can’t do this until there is an enormous change in the way people think about society. The best prospect in achieving this sort of mass ‘consciousness raising’ would seem to be engaging in political activities that can make a difference, however small, on issues that people do care about now, but doing so in a way that is (a) informed by a deeper analysis of society, and (b) spreads the word about this sort of analysis. The idea being that we build a critical mass of people who are aware of this sort of thing.
Actually, I think this point of view is fairly well established and most political groups are doing something like this already. The problem is that we don’t seem to be getting anywhere, which is precisely a tactical rather than a strategic problem. The left is looking more and more irrelevant as time goes on, but the need for a left-wing analysis gets ever more pressing (climate change and conflict in the Middle East for example).
Perhaps the problem is after all that the political activities that people are engaging in are not being connected with the sort of radical analysis of society that the IPPS and others offer. The Green Party in the UK for example, perhaps ought to make more of a point of connecting environmental issues with basic problems associated to capitalism. This is something an organisation like IPPS can potentially address. People are done with Marxism and other such ideas, and the ideas of people in the IPPS have the potential to step into this space.
(5) How do other perspectives, which have different ideas about societal change, fit into your strategy and vision?
Assuming they have a similar analysis of the problems, there is very little problem. We shouldn’t assume that our way of doing things is the best, we just have to do what we can in the way that seems best. The best ideas will – if we are not dogmatic and authoritarian – hopefully win out.
Merry Christmas and a happy New Year and all that!
Brian Barder highlights more political commentators failing to challenge the attack on civil liberties. Reading some of these articles has begun to make me think that advocates of civil liberties perhaps need a more positive campaign? Mostly we just complain that liberties X, Y and Z are being taken away, that this is bad because blah blah blah. What we never seem to do is outline what a state would be like which took civil liberties and issues like privacy seriously. I don’t think this should be beyond our powers, and it might make a considerable difference.
For example, Anna Coote argues that perhaps the plans to digitise medical records could be an opportunity to push a civil libertarian agenda rather than something we should just oppose. Actually, I think it’s a little naive to think that we can do this on this issue, because the people implementing it are going to be people who don’t give a hoot about civil liberties, so pragmatically our best bet is to do everything we can to oppose it. But, that isn’t to say we shouldn’t outline an alternative vision which encompasses the good bits about digitising medical records but which doesn’t have the bad bits. It won’t actually happen, but it associates our point of view with real alternatives.
In the case of medical databases (and perhaps more widely), we could maybe draw on the expertise of people like Ross Anderson of the Cambridge computing laboratory.
Like most blog entries, I don’t really propose anything specific here, but I think this is potentially a very important thing that we should be doing. I intend to think about this and hopefully I’ll write some entries with some more specific ideas. For the moment though, has anyone else come across examples of positive proposals of this sort? Anyone else interested in this prospect?