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Parecon and Society: Art


Here is another chapter in draft for the book in progress. This one does have a section missing on the conditions of artists in the U.S., etc. which will have stats about artists doing ads instead of art, and so on…but otherwise it is ready for comment. It is a draft however, not for attribution elsewhere. Comments are welcome here, however — criticisms, suggestions, additions, deletions, whatever…

One could easily anticipate that people who own factories and have great wealth would have a negative initial – and perhaps long term – reaction to participatory economics. Factory owners have, after all, benefited from capitalism’s most aggressive inequalities and have generally developed rationalizations of those features, claiming that they personally deserve their great wealth and power rather than that they hold it only by virtue of institutional economic injustice. When capitalists look in the personal or collective mirror they typically do not recoil in horror due to seeing a beneficiary of elite domination that’s based on monopolizing ownership of productive assets, but instead they preen and celebrate due to seeing a superior breed deserving great influence and luxury for its entrepreneurship.

Similarly, those who are currently in the coordinator class or who even aspire to it will, in many instances, predictably be at least initially and sometimes over the long haul hostile to parecon. They typically feel they are smarter and wiser, more capable and more enterprising then workers below, rather than that they are the beneficiaries of (a) a relative monopoly on training and empowering conditions that raises them up and pushes other down vis a vis capacities to participate and make decisions, and (b) of a morally bankrupt criteria of reward and decision making.

When coordinator class members look in the personal or collective mirror, in other words, they typically do not see a beneficiary of elite domination of others based on monopolizing economic roles and circumstances of empowerment, but they see a superior breed deserving disproportionate luxury and influence for its intelligence and skills and even its greater capacity to enjoy a rich and varied life.

Oddly, it turns out there is another group that seems to have a more or less reflexive initial tendency to reject parecon – artists. In my experience, at least, this sector worries greatly on hearing about parecon’s features, and tends to lash out against it without even considering possible gains for others or even for themselves. Something deep seems to be threatened, and they respond with vigor.

So what is the deal with art and artists vis a vis the economy? Can/will a desirable economy such as a participatory economy be advantageous for artists and art, or will it reduce the lives of the practitioners and also delimit their product? Put in reverse, would having an ideal environment for people to partake of artistic labors, consistent with others having comparable conditions and opportunities, impose needs and implications on the rest of economics that a parecon could not abide?

It seems that artists’ reactions to parecon are like those of coordinator class members more generally, but with a twist. Artists don’t think all lawyers, doctors, engineers, and so on are like them. They think, instead, that there is something grand and great about art that distinguishes them from the rest of society’s actors. And they fear, at least on first hearing, that parecon will interfere with their endeavors.

What is this specialness? Creativity, they say. We create. We bring into existence? We dredge from nothing, something. And, more, we not only see what isn’t and nurture it into existence, we do this often, way ahead of others perceptions and preferences. Our work takes time to even be understood much less appreciated.

And so what about participatory economics worries them? Partly it is that they will have to do balanced job complexes. And partly it is that they will have to operate in the participatory planning system, which means that others will have an impact on whether they can do their thing or not. So how will art transpire in a parecon, and what will be the implications for artists and their creations? And, finally, is there anything special about their qualms?

Artistic labor in a parecon – painting, sculpting, designing, writing, filming, directing, performing, dancing, conducting, etc. – will be subject to the same structural impositions as all other labor in a parecon. There will be workplaces for different types of product, workers councils of those involved in the production, consumers who benefit from the product, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, balanced job complexes, participatory planning of allocation, etc.

In capitalism the artist, of one kind or another, attempts to get work which means appealing to a source of financing. Ultimately this will be property owners – capitalists, whether via their own and financing movies and plays, or publishing houses, or their donating to support a public symphony, or whatever else. The owners or administrators will hire the artist if they think they can make profits off the artists’ labors, or, in some quite rare cases, out of literally liking the product and being willing to subsidize it regardless of losses to be incurred. The artist’s income will depend on his or her bargaining power, which will be affected by many variables, including the popularity of the output, the artists relative monopoly on the talents that go into its creation, etc.

What all this leads to, in capitalist economies, is …..stats, etc.

What about in a participatory economy, then? What would be the difference for artists and art? First a worker producing art of one sort or another will work with a workers council, as do all other workers. He or she will get hired, like other workers, be remunerated like other workers, have a balanced job complex like other workers, and influence decisions like other workers, meaning through workers and consumers councils addressing production and consumption and also allocation via participatory planning.

This means the artist has to convince other artists that he or she is a worthy worker in the field so as to get a job. The criteria is producing desirable art. This would seem like a gigantic improvement from having to convince a sponsor or owner with the criteria being benefit to him or her, meaning, mostly, profits for him or her.

It also means the artist’s income will be in accord with effort and sacrifice expended in socially valued labor, which is just and while less than a few artists earn under capitalism, likely considerably more than most earn – a universally moral improvement, a collective improvement for society in overcoming inequity, and even a material improvement for the individual artist, most often.

It also mean the artist will have a combined job complex that is of average empowerment effect. Artist’s typically take considerable responsibility for all sides of their activity. As to how much other work – other tasks – they would wind up incorporating in their overall job complex, I doubt we can say much now. That it would generate an unalienated existence, remove class division, etc., we have argued repeatedly. There is nothing new in all this due to it being artists we are discussing, as compared to any other producers. As to the change from capitalist corporate divisions of labor, not only is it better in the large, but for all but a very few elite artists – re-examine the descriptions above of the situation in capitalism, if you doubt this — it would likely mean considerably more time doing what the type of art work they most desire to do, even if there is, predictably, a shorter work week and time going to other responsibilities.

But what about influence over the artistic product? And what about the art that emerges? The artist hearing about parecon starts to worry – will others be telling me what to paint, carve, write, etc.? And will the population at large be deciding whether my art is worthy or not, in some allocation process?

Artists as a group are like all workers’ councils. They don’t get workplace inputs, electricity, equipment, clay, paint, and so on, unless their workplace is producing consonant with social needs. But within that constraint, again like other workers, they self-manage their own activity. The population will negotiate with artists how much of the social productive potential should go to art, given what art seems to yield for their lives and society and artists inclinations regarding their labors. But, once this is established, it is workers councils in art workplaces that hire and also fire artists, for being worthy and working appropriately. So it is your fellow artists you must convince of the efficacy of your activities. Might you fail in that? Yes. But surely it will be easier and less alienating than convincing an owner. And if you do fail, does it mean you can do nothing about it? No. You can produce on your own time and demonstrate the validity of your proposals.

The idea that the population will be unable to see that there is merit in artistic work that escapes the bounds of current preferences, that diversifies the bounty of product and exploration, is as elitist and unwarranted as the idea that the population won’t support science, or engineering, or innovation in all other walks of life. And the idea that for top current artists to have to do a balanced job complex will take away from society’s total art product is no less elitist than the idea that the 80% of the population currently denied means and opportunity to develop its potentials could not generate sufficient artistic product to replace anything that might not get generated due to some artist having to sweep up, etc. In fact it is more ridiculous on two counts. First, artists generally sweep up quite a lot now, even top ones. And second, more to the point, most people doing artistically creative work are not, in fact, generating worthy art but, instead, packaging, advertising, etc., all of which is reduced to near nil in a desirable economy like parecon.

So the bottom line is that parecon does to and for art what it does to and for other pursuits. It removes class differences, guarantees that what is done utilizing social assets is in accord with social desires, inserts self managing methods, remunerates justly, makes the criteria of worth meeting needs and fulfilling potentials consistent with broadly held values, and removes elitism while retaining quality and standards.

For purposes of rounding out this chapter, here are three question put to parecon explicitly by artists, and short answers. It is redundant, but the question/answer format may help clarity.

Wouldn’t parecon limit individual artistic creativity by deciding what art to produce by participatory planning, as if by referendum or committee?

Do you think this because artists, like producers of vehicles, get resources to work with (outputs of other people’s efforts) and are in turn allotted income for their work (and a claim on the social product) only insofar as their work, overall, is respected in the economy? I don’t see why these accurate perceptions lead you to your worry.

If you are worried that it would be within the purview of society to decree that some type innovation is unwanted or unlikely to be successful and that resources shouldn’t be given over to it – yes, that is true – for art as for innovation in, say, how to build better bicycles or make better ladders, say, or whatever. But the assumption that in a parecon the population would not want musical and artistic innovation pursued by those with talents and creativity, in the artist’s own manner as they evolve their dispositions and talents, seems to me very very dubious. I should think the opposite would be true, overwhelmingly.

What people currently like would be part of the issue in parecon – for sure. A parecon isn’t going to produce massive amounts of avant garde books and disks and films for audiences that don’t exist. But that isn’t the whole of good policy in this regard, of course. For one thing, smaller groups can like things a lot, making them very worthwhile even though not widely appreciated. But also, at any moment in time, much of what is pursued – not only in art, but in many dimensions of life such as science, engineering, product design, etc. – is not yet appreciated beyond those who are trying to explore it and maybe not even entirely by them. Art, despite the contrary intuitions of many artists, is not special in this respect, in fact. So there is need for exploration and elaboration in art, music, and ideas and information and innovation more generally, all of which moves out beyond current popular taste.

But there is nothing about parecon that precludes or even impedes this exploration relative to any other model I am aware of, much less relative to capitalism…quite the contrary.

Imagine a workplace for musicians. Society respects this workplace and includes it as part of the economy because it values music, including innovation. To work at this institution (and in different parecons we can imagine different approaches to all such issues) one has to be hired which likely entails demonstrating certain knowledge, talent, etc. The institution’s budget is allocated internally to various activities, by its members, and therefore certainly not only to what a mass audience outside already likes. It really isn’t much different in these respects than a workplace investigating new products,.

But aren’t artists with such public controls not really artists anymore?

This notion that an artist is some special unique creature with special rights, entirely eludes me. It is a claim made by all intellectual workers – folks in or wanting to be in the coordinator class – each seeing it as valid for themselves but not always seeing it as equally valid for others, but in fact the claim is true for all and for none, depending on what it means.

There is a difference, that is, between being controlled publicly, what and others reasonably fear, and being part of a society, operating in accord with its norms, etc. and thus having a say over outcomes in proportion as they affect one, but not more. Parecon gives everyone in the economy self managing influence over economic outcomes, and this includes people who do science, engineering, administration, building, serving, and art as a part of their balanced job complex, each like the rest.

The whole idea of being an artist seems contrary to the notion of producing “popular” art for mass appeal. What happens to an artist who makes unappealing art in Parecon?

Suppose I happen to like some kind of weird arrangement of items in my living room, and I like the setup changed daily, and it takes me an hour each day to do it, and it is hard work. Should I be able to earn my living in part doing that? It has no value for anyone else in society whatsoever…let’s say.

I think not. I shouldn’t be forbidden from doing it, of course. But it is my private pursuit and it is more consumption than it is production, and it isn’t worthy of being called part of a job complex, I should think. Now this isn’t by definition the case in a parecon – which could decide otherwise for reasons I don’t yet or maybe would never personally agree with. That is a parecon’s participants could actually allow and incorporate this type activity as work though I doubt one ever would would.

Something similar happens for art, music, and also engineering, science, etc. Insofar as society is going to allocate income to those doing some activity, it is going to want that activity to “count” as work, which means that overall, on average, it has socially beneficial outcomes. (There may be lots of misses on the road to some hits, and benefit may have many meanings…but still…)

So if I want to pursue some science, or engineering, or music, or writing, or building, or landscaping, or architecting, or constructing, or teaching, or whatever, and I want this activity to be part of my balanced job complex, the activity has to be regarded by the economy as worthy…yes.

But how does the economy determine worthiness? Most likely, for art as with engineering, etc., it will do so by budgeting whole institutions that will in turn incorporate people who do this type work, and will then take the employees’ collective view as to the worthiness of pursuits undertaken.

Could it be that some genius will propose to a music workplace or an art workplace or a research center, pursuits that others in the field wrongly feel deserve no time, energy, and resources? It could happen. But parecon is far far less vulnerable to such problems, having removed profit and power differentials from the motivations of actors, than is capitalism, say.

Ignorance may still have an impact, or just outright error. No system can be immune from that. But, precisely because every system is vulnerable to such error, one can at least roughly account for the likely distribution of ignorance and try to guard against it having ill effects – which is just what elevating the value “diversity” to such a prime position as parecon does is meant to help achieve.

As a last point, suppose we come at the problem in the opposite direction and ask what does having the ideal system for artists demand of an economy? Of course the problem is arriving at what we mean by “ideal system for artists.” Some might think the phrase is fulfilled if the system simply lets artists do whatever they want, giving them anything they want, both to do their art, and to enjoy and explore existence, as well.

But if we instead say that artists should have what will benefit their lives and their art, but consistent with all other people equally having what will benefit their lives and their preferred ways of expressing their capacities – then, interestingly, it seems that pareconish values arise quite directly, and in turn pareconish institutions.

Surely artists need to control their endeavors and their interactiosn in the world, as well, which provide fuel for their insights and communications. But to have this option consistently with others having it too, means having self managing say. For the artist to be appreciated, to have range of choice, for there to be high standards, for them to have the tools and conditions they need – all, again, consistent with others having the same benefits and costs regarding their pursuits – militates for remuneration for effort and sacrifice, balanced job complexes, etc.

The point is, artists are people. Economically they produce and they consume. What they produce and what they do to produce it is different from what others do, and from each other, as well. But what everyone does is different from what others do. Artists conceive, originate – but so do all other social actors in the economy, at least to some degree, and some do it very much so as in people coming up with product innovations, new techniques, new analyses in changing contexts, new basic theory, and so on. Artists are worthy and inspirational and valuable. They are not unique in these respects, however.

So, in sum, parecon creates conditions conducive to society benefiting from artistic talent and conducive to capable artists expressing themselves as they choose. More, parecon does all this consistently with economic equity and justice for the artists and equally for all other workers and consumers as well.

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