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There Is An Alternative


I was recently asked for a 1,000 word piece on parecon for a major German newspaper. I was reminded of an old joke. “would you like me to explain the meaning of life,” says the jokester. While the audience ponders the offer a second, the jokester says, “would you like me to do it again.” I am always excited by requests to summarize parecon for new audiences. I am always nervous about not doing it justice, even in whole books, much less tiny articles. Nonetheless, the piece follows.

In capitalism, owners accrue profits. Managers and others who monopolize highly empowered tasks greatly influence what is produced, by what means, and with what distribution, and benefit substantially from their power. Nearly four fifths of the population, the working class, do subordinate, largely rote labor. They suffer low income, obey orders, and endure boredom. As John Lennon put it, “As soon as you’re born they make you feel small, by giving you no time instead of it all.”

Capitalism destroys solidarity, homogenizes variety, obliterates equity, and imposes harsh hierarchy. Capitalism is top heavy in power and opportunity and bottom heavy in pain and constraint. Indeed, Capitalism economically imposes on workers discipline beyond what any dictator ever dreamed of politically imposing. What citizen has ever had to ask permission of political commissars or dictators to go to the bathroom, yet this is a commonplace requirement for workers in many corporations.

Capitalism’s institutions create anti-sociality even in good people. Market competition and the corporate drive to accumulate profits imposes the most narrow individualism on even capitalism’s most social citizens. In capitalism, as a famous American baseball manager quipped, “nice guys finish last.” More aggressively “garbage rises.” Witness the White House.

Participatory economics, or parecon, organizes economic life differently. Parecon produces desired products but also equitable incomes, circumstances, opportunities, and responsibilities. Parecon’s participants all exert a fair share of control over their own life and all shared social outcomes.

Parecon produces solidarity. Even an antisocial individual in a parecon has no choice but to account for social well-being if he or she wishes to prosper.

Parecon produces diversity and generates equitable distribution that remunerates each participant for how long and how hard they work as well as for harsh conditions they may suffer at work.

Parecon conveys to each person a say in what is produced, how it is produced, and how outputs are allocated, all in proportion to the degree he or she is affected by those decisions.

Parecon, has as its aims solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management – classlessness — and to accomplish them parecon incorporates different institutions than capitalism.

Parecon utilizes democratic councils where workers and consumers employ diverse modes of discussion, debate, and democratic determination. There are no corporate owners or managers who decide outcomes from the top down.

In a parecon, each worker does a fair combination of empowering and rote labor. All participants enjoy comparably empowering circumstances. 20% of the workforce does not monopolize all the empowering tasks with 80% doing only subordinate labor. There is still expertise. There is still coordination. Decisions still get made. But no minority monopolizes empowering information, activity, and access to decision making positions. No majority is made subservient by doing only deadening labor with no decision making component.

In parecon, in other words, each and every job, which means each and every person’s work, while contoured to the person’s needs and potentials, also always involves a mix of tasks calibrated so that each participant has average empowering conditions. There is no owning class. There is no managerial or coordinator class. In parecon workers and consumers cooperatively creatively fulfill their capacities consistently with each participant having a fair share of influence.

Parecon has remuneration for effort and sacrifice, which translates to remuneration for the duration, intensity, and harshness of the work people do. Parecon rejects remuneration for power, property, or even output. Instead of gargantuan disparities of income and wealth, parecon has a just distribution of social product.

Parecon also rejects markets which pit each actor against all others, destroy solidarity, impose class division, mis-price all public goods, ignore collective effects beyond direct buyers and sellers, violate ecological balance and sustainability, and have many other faults as well. In place of markets parecon utilizes a system of workers and consumers councils plus diverse communicative structures that together facilitate all participants cooperatively negotiating inputs and outputs for all firms and actors in accord with true and full social costs and benefits of economic activities.

In a short article I can’t provide even a compelling case for an entirely different economic system. I can only briefly describe, or rather name, some of the core values and institutions. I know such brevity is vague and is hard for unfamiliar readers to translate into greater substance. But we have no room here for clarification, supporting argument, or detailed discussion. My apologies.

What I hope, however, is that readers who know from their own experience that capitalist economies routinely cause us to fleece each other, deny us having a say over our own lives and/or force us to dominate the lives of others, distribute massive outputs to those who do the most pleasurable or even who do no work at all and distribute meager outputs to those who do the least pleasurable and the overwhelming volume of work, will hope that parecon is a viable and worthy alternative.

I hope, in other words, that instead of quietly accepting Margaret Thatcher’s passivity-inducing mantra that “there is no alternative,” we will all seek something better than capitalism, and that, moved by our aspirations for a better economy we will carefully consider parecon on its merits. One place that you might begin doing that, if you don’t accept that humanity is forever doomed to suffer gross inequality and hierarchy via capitalist ownership, corporations, and markets, is at http://www.parecon.org.

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