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Introducing Parecon


It has quickly become clear that this blog needs some introduction to participatory economics…as well as including an accumulating array of posts that more or less presume at least modest familiarity.

The following essay was written as the first piece in an exchange with the British journalist George Monbiot (the debate is online at http://www.zmag.org/monbiotalbertdebate.htm). It summarizes the parecon vision…

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Imagine a biologist announces that cancer is forever so we should stop trying to cure it. Given the implications, he should have massive evidence or shut up. Moreover, if he has a shred of decency he should cry.

Analogously, a political analyst says capitalism is forever. She too should have an iron-clad case before suggesting that we forego justice and equity. And she too should cry while pronouncing such an instruction. No wonder we activists decry smiling, laughing, bullying people who say capitalism is forever.

But many people who doubt that a better society is possible are not smiling, laughing, and bullying. They are sincere and sad. Honest skeptics believe if we overcome poverty in one place, it will pop up elsewhere. If we improve conditions for one group, they will decline for another. If we change international relations to benefit the poor and weak, persistent capitalism will soon roll back our victory. Fighting for change appears to these people like pushing rocks up an infinite multi-sided hill. What we push up, tumbles back down. It’s an idiot’s pursuit.

These critics of social criticism feel that persistent capitalism will repeatedly restore disorder and pain. When they ask us what we want, they are wondering what we think will prevent capitalist influences from destroying justice wherever we temporarily produce it. As long as we don’t offer a vision of a just economy to replace capitalism, our entreaties to oppose poverty, degradation, and war seem to them as misconceived as entreaties to oppose aging. They see no point in opposing the inevitable.

So what is our compelling alternative to capitalism? And what can we demand that improves immediate conditions and also promotes our long-term goals?

First, I should clarify that I think we need compelling alternatives to patriarchy, racism, and authoritarian states, as well as to capitalist economics, all with equal priority. For this exchange, I emphasize economy, but only due to myself knowing more about it.

In place of capitalism, I advocate participatory economics, or parecon. Parecon rejects private ownership and hierarchical corporate decision making and adopts workers and consumers councils and self management. It casts off corporate divisions of labor and includes balanced job complexes. It rejects remunerating property, power, and/or output to instead remunerate effort and sacrifice. It abolishes markets and central planning and elevates participatory planning in their place.

The logic of capitalism is to maximize profits and market share. In market settings, nice guys finish last. Capitalist profit-seeking homogenizes, impoverishes, centralizes, and commodifies. The alternative logic of parecon is to meet people’s needs and develop people’s potentials while enhancing solidarity, diversity, equity, and self-management.

In parecon workers and consumers operate in councils where they directly express and manifest their preferences. These councils exist at the levels of individuals, teams, divisions, workplaces, and industries for production, and at the level of individuals, living units, neighborhoods, counties, regions, countries, etc. for consumption. But what happens within councils? How are preferences developed and manifested and how are decisions made? How much influence does each person have on each outcome?

Of course an owner should not decide everything in a workplace. Likewise workers should not have to ask permission even to go to the bathroom. But why not? What positive principle makes us reject rule by a few over the many? For me, the positive principle is that people should have a say in decisions in proportion to the degree they are affected by them.

If a decision affects only me, I should have full say. But if a decision affects lots of other people as well, then they should have a say too, perhaps even more than I have.

With a little thought, no one believes the whole workplace should vote on whether Tariq can put a picture of his roommate in his workspace. About this, only Tariq’s preferences matter. But also no one believes that Arundhati ought to be able to unilaterally decide to bring in a portable stereo and play loud heavy metal music which everyone in Arundhati’s area dislikes.

In the first decision, Tariq gets to be a potentate — like any King in history, making the decision dictatorially. In the second case, Arundhati can be overruled by her workmates, though only those who can hear the music.

Advocating self management means understanding that one person one vote fifty percent rule, or two thirds rule, or three quarters rule, or requiring consensus, or having different people get different numbers of ballots, or having a part of the workplace participate in voting but other members not participate, or having overarching decisions made by large units and sub-decisions made only by those directly carrying out mandates — are all tactics for attaining a larger principle and not themselves matters of principle.

The guiding principle isn’t that everyone should always get some precise level of influence over all decisions. The guiding principle is that we should distribute information, deliberate possibilities, and finally decide choices in ways that deliver to each actor influence proportionate to the extent the actor is affected.

Some people think self management would reduce the quality of decisions by diminishing the impact of expert insight. In fact, however, we are all the world’s foremost expert in our own preferences. I need a nutritionist to tell me the relative merits of certain food choices. But I am the expert regarding what I want to eat, knowing the relevant facts. Self-management in expressing our preferences in decision-making plus, of course, prior communication of expert information, maximally utilizes expertise.

Okay, so we have in our new economy expertly informed workers and consumers councils using flexible context-specific self-managing decision making procedures. It sounds good, but it would be obliterated in a jiffy if some workers consistently came to decision-making meetings highly confident and enervated due to possessing critical knowledge and skills imparted by their labor, while other workers consistently slouched in, having been disempowered, exhausted, and dulled by their labor.

If workers councils are divided thusly, then despite a sincere initial commitment to providing appropriate proportionate say to everyone, the work-empowered group will propose all options, do virtually all the deliberating, and ultimately overwhelmingly determine all decisions. The work-routinized group will at most line up behind the go-getters following their orders. Before long the routinized workers will be banished from the meetings as useless deadwood.

More, this is precisely the division of labor that we know so well from our own daily lives in contemporary capitalist (or in so-called socialist) workplaces. About 20% of the workforce enjoys largely empowering labor and fulfilling conditions preparing them to be assertive. The other 80% do largely rote and obedient labor preparing them to be subordinate. Pre-work education is structured compatibly. Schools are tracked to rob initiative, crush creativity, and teach 80% of students to obey and endure boredom. They convey skills and knowledge and nurture initiative and comprehension for the remaining 20%.

What is the alternative?

In a parecon instead of the corporate division of labor that produces a coordinator class ruling a working class, we have balanced job complexes and classlessness. The analysis is simple. Every job in any economy contains tasks. In a parecon the tasks in each job are chosen so the overall job has essentially the same qualities vis a vis empowering its agent and vis a vis the quality of life imparted to its agent as every other job. You like one job better and it will be better for you, and I like another job better and it will be better for me. But society will have determined that in their intrinsic qualities your job and my job and all others have average empowerment and quality of life effects.

We still have surgery, but the people who transplant hearts also do less empowering tasks, such as cleaning bed pans. We still have filing and rote assembly, but the people who file and assemble also do other more empowering tasks, such as teaching or designing.

In sum, we don’t have 20% of the working population monopolizing the tasks which convey confidence, power, and fulfillment, and 80% cleaning, digging, handling, and carrying. We have one class — not two or three — and each member of that one class has a mix of responsibilities and conditions that is comparable to the mix that everyone else has. We don’t all do the same thing, of course, but nor do any of us do only empowering tasks while others do only subordinate ones.

So we have councils and self management and also balanced job complexes — but what about remuneration? As already noted, in a parecon remuneration is for effort and sacrifice. Since parecons equilibrate jobs for quality of life implications, rewarding for effort and sacrifice conveniently means that you earn more only by virtue of working longer or working harder, and that you earn less only by virtue of working less long or less hard, assuming, of course, that you are doing socially valued labor that utilizes assets effectively.

Examining output will in many contexts help us gauge intensity or longevity, but it isn’t rewarded per se. If you are physically stronger, or you have better eyesight or dexterity, or you have some special talent such as composition, design, or calculation, or you use better tools, or you help produce something more highly valued, or you have more productive workmates, or you have more productive acreage to cultivate, you don’t get more income as a result. You have to utilize available assets to be doing socially useful labor, but the remuneration you get for the labor you do is for the effort expended and the travail incurred, not the output generated.

Okay, we form a workplace. We have workers councils, self-managing decision making procedures, and balanced job complexes, and we remunerate equitably. How do we relate to other workplaces and to consumers?

If we relate via central planning, our firm will be subordinate to the will of the planners. Central planning’s logic is down go instructions from the planners to the workers, back up go reactions from the workers to the planners, down go refined instructions, back up goes obedience. The planners will want to interact with a layer of managers who share their values and advantages, not with a workers council that battles them at every turn. The coordinator/worker distinction, corporate divisions of labor, outcomes biased toward the interests of a ruling (coordinator) class, generalized authoritarianism, and other ills of alienated labor will all creep back into the picture.

What about markets? First, markets misprice everything by accounting for only the wills of buyers and sellers and leaving out attention to impacts beyond buyers and sellers, such as from pollution (cars), health effects (cigarettes), and behavioral effects (liquor), etc. Positive wider impacts aren’t accounted for either. Second, markets induce buyers to try to sell dear and induce sellers to try to buy cheap, thereby imposing anti-sociality. Each tries to fleece the other. With markets, the pursuit of surplus compels accumulation for the sake of private profit and not for meeting needs. Each unit must compete with the rest by cutting costs, and, to do that, quite rationally each unit hires a layer of managers to impose austerity on workers while themselves being isolated from austerity. Markets produce the corporate division of labor and, in the absence of owners, coordinator rule.

The upshot is that market and centrally planned economies (including those called socialist) have universally been economies that elevate a coordinator class above workers.

Okay, so if not markets or central planning, what is parecon’s allocation answer? Worker and consumer councils propose their economic preferences. The information circulates and is massaged into enlightening data. A new round of proposals ensues. Cooperative negotiations traverse a number of back and forth refinements, round by round — or, in technical parlance, iteration by iteration – until finally arriving at inputs and outputs for each unit.

Consumers and consumer groups function in light of their budget, based in turn on how much they wish to work for income versus their desires to enjoy leisure. Producers have to utilize their productive assets to be doing socially responsible labor. Remuneration, which sets consumption budgets, is for effort and sacrifice. Relative valuations of goods and qualitative information about the implications of their production and consumption are readily available and steadily refined through the cooperative negotiations until arriving at true social costs and benefits. What are called facilitation boards process and help convey information — and of course their employees, like everyone else, have balanced job complexes. There is no center or periphery. There is no top or bottom. Planning is cooperative, negotiated, horizontal, without hierarchy and without classes.

The incredible claim of the parecon advocate about participatory planning is that regarding how many pencils are produced, how many oranges are picked and shipped, how many parks are built, what investments are undertaken, and on and on, not only do those doing the work influence the choice, and not only do those consuming the product influence the choice, and not only do those affected by pollution influence the choice, but even those who could have been consuming something that was forgone to fulfill this decision’s input needs influence the choice. And, on top of all that, the level of influence workers and consumers have is proportionate to the impact on them of the choices at stake. Participatory planning actualizes self-management.

Still more, in market economies even a socially caring person feels tremendous pressure to ignore the well being of others and to trample solidarity while pursuing personal advance. With capitalist markets, nice guys finish last and garbage rises. In contrast, to make self-serving economic choices via participatory planning, even a person brought up to be quite anti-social and self centered must care about and try to advance the well being of others. Nice guys finish first and solidarity is enhanced.

To be compelling, these claims require far more description and argument than what’s offered above. Hopefully the reader of this summary will feel that maybe parecon really would be classless and will examine it further to see if it would be efficient, productive, honor privacy, and respect personal inclinations, in addition to all the other claims made for it. And, I hope the reader will feel if parecon does pass all these tests he or she will have something to advocate beyond capitalism. And if it doesn’t pass the tests — he or she will have something to try to fix, or to amend, or to transcend.

So let’s say someone takes that attitude and after further investigation finds parecon worthy. Now what about attaining a parecon?

First, how come past anti-capitalist struggles that sought socialism and won haven’t arrived at parecon but have instead universally mired down with authoritarian dictatorships, homogenized cultures, patriarchal kin systems, and sterile, polluted, and class-divided economies?

The answer is because that’s what they aimed for. Anti-capitalist revolutions have not failed to produce self-managing societies and economies due to inexorable laws of social organization or of human inadequacy. The problem was instead within, Their Marxist concepts obscured the possibility of coordinator rule rather than highlighting it, denigrated cultural diversity rather than celebrating it, were obtuse to gender hierarchy rather than being feminist, and had only elitist and authoritarian political comprehension rather than being anarchist. The movements succeeded, but succeeding meant instituting what their commitments implied: one party political rule, coordinator ruled economies, homogenized cultures, and still patriarchal kinship relations. It was not fate or nature or physics that prevented these past efforts from being fully liberating. It was strategies that aimed at and successfully attained outcomes that were contrary to what most of the participants hoped for.

Our task is to say goodbye to all that and organize for short- and long-term aims that really do accord with our highest aspirations.

For example, imagine diverse movements each of which offers direction for its focus area but takes its lead from other movements regarding focuses beyond its primary one. Call this entire conglomeration a movement of movements where the total project is the total sum of all the parts and not a least common denominator coalition of them.

Imagine, also, an electoral arm that is beholden to the grass roots. And imagine parallel and entwined efforts to create grassroots councils in workplaces and neighborhoods.

Imagine, too, demands for immediate improvements sought with intentions that these gains are not ends in themselves but steps toward a new society. Each new demand for better pay and income distribution, for a shorter work week, for affirmative action, for better voting rules, for more power at work, for changes in military budgeting and foreign policies, for participatory budgeting, for replacing the IMF, World Bank, and World Trade Organization, for establishing world parliament, is sought in ways that leave movements larger, more committed, more intent on continued struggle and structurally better able to carry struggle through — rather than in ways that quickly suffer roll-back.

And imagine as well a sustained, reasoned, and patient commitment to incorporate in our work the features we seek for a new society such as balanced job complexes, self management, multi-culturalism, political participation, etc., both so that we learn more about these aims, and also to demonstrate the aims to inspire desire and provide hope.

What impedes doing all of this is not the power of the state or the ubiquity of manipulative mass media. These are huge factors, of course. But they are a given. That’s the world we operate in. The key variable is ourselves. We need to move from exclusively repeating what is wrong with society to largely advocating what we desire for society. And we need to stop incorporating contemporary societal features that we hate in our projects, and to instead start implementing those that we favor.

Viewed with one disposition, history has so far been a horrible accumulation of oppression and suffering. Viewed with another disposition, however, history has chronicled humans discovering their own finer potentials and together mounting heroic offensives to attain them — against monarchy, feudalism, slavery, Jim Crow racism, apartheid, sexual subjugation, second class citizenship, sexism, heterosexism, dictatorship, one party rule, capitalism, and coordinatorism — and seeking, in their place, equity, justice, and freedom. The gains we have made have been steady and plentiful. Now a major leap is possible. Consistent with past efforts, we can now attain fully liberatory goals, including, I think, parecon and also alternative structures for polity, culture, and kinship.

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