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Why Parecon?


Fifteen years ago, Robin Hahnel and I published a book titled Looking Forward. It was the first in-depth presentation of the economic vision called participatory economics, or parecon for short. Of course Robin and I worked hard on parecon and related ideas before that, but even sticking to only the fifteen years since Looking Forward, and even considering only myself, I have subsequently written or co-written numerous related books, dozens of articles, more dozens of interviews, and I have given, I would guess, about 150 talks in the U.S., Europe, Asia, Latin America, and soon Africa. Alongside other focuses, why have I for fifteen years ceaselessly advocated parecon? I get asked this every now and then. Sometimes my interrogator is curious, sometimes hostile. It is a fair question. This a good time to answer.

One possibility for the basis of my tenacity on behalf of parecon is called cognitive dissonance. I expended great energy on conceiving and writing Looking Forward. I vested considerable personal hope in its ideas. In this interpretation of my choices, from parecon’s origination on I was primarily defending my initial and then accumulating emotional and psychological investment in its validity. If at some point I suddenly decided parecon wasn’t worth my time, that would imply as well that it wasn’t worth my time earlier, which would suggest that my earlier behavior was without value, whether it was mistaken or plain stupid. I therefore compulsively dodged that outcome. Obviously, if this is the correct explanation of my choices, the situation gets steadily worse as there is steadily more time invested in advocating parecon. Not being able to tolerate admitting past error, I instead keep plugging away lest my not plugging away implicitly tarnishes my past. We can label this mode of behavior, only a little tongue in cheek, insecurely reflexive defensive obsession.

Another possible explanation for my tenacity on behalf of parecon, however, is that I soberly considered my options and felt it was worth my time and energy, not to mention other resources that have been put to the task, to keep focusing on developing support for parecon. In this second, less degrading, explanation, I could emotionally stop working on parecon advocacy at any time, albeit with some depression, but reason keeps pushing me into advocacy, and so I keep pushing myself and others as well to do more, more, more. Call this mode of behavior, still a little tongue in cheek, rationally calculated aggressive obsession.

So which mindset is primarily at the root of my commitment to parecon: egomaniacal defensiveness or rational aggressiveness?

I am obviously not the appropriate final arbiter for judging my motives, but I can at least offer my case, indicating what I think has been going on, for others to find flaw or synergy with. So here are the main reasons why I keep parecon-ing like a bulldog grabbing a bone, night and day, day and night.

Reason 1. Parecon solves the problem of classlessness.

The usual approach to class, as I understood it back before parecon, was that economic classes were a product of ownership relations. The main division was between capitalists owning the means of production and workers owning only their ability to do work. There were other classes such as peasants, but they were deemed less important. One could also distinguish between little or big owners, skilled or unskilled workers, and so on, but this was also a secondary matter. The big issue was capital versus labor. Capitalists ruled. Workers suffered. More, workers had the numbers and collective capacity to overthrow capitalists.

It wasn’t long before I felt that this picture was misleading due to being too simple by roughly a third. What about managers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and so on? I wasn’t satisfied with lumping these highly empowered workers in with either rote workers or even more powerful owners. I felt that the inbetween group were not just a little different from owners and workers, but a lot different. More, I felt that they were different in a way that arose from their economic position, not some other context, and that mattered greatly.

Starting from there, in time, parecon extended the insights of the early anarchists like Bakunin, and of the later libertarian socialists like, most recently, Barbara and John Ehrenreich, to highlight a different basis for class division and class rule. Class, in this pareconist view, went beyond just ownership. Indeed, ownership was ultimately an instance of something more general – position in the economy.

What made a class, that is, was that a group’s position in the economy gave it interests collectively different and contrary to other classes, and, especially, that its position not only gave it a different methodology for personal advance and a different associated self image and image of others, but also a potential to rule economic life.

Thus, Hahnel and I, extending the Ehrenreichs, decided that a group between labor and capital that we called the coordinator class mattered both to how capitalism works, and, even more so, to what has in the past replaced capitalism. We realized, that is, that what was called socialism had core institutions that didn’t elevate workers while eliminating owners, but that instead elevated coordinators while eliminating owners. In the so-called socialist economies, we realized workers didn’t dominantly decide economic outcomes and equitably share society’s output. Instead, it was coordinators, from above, who dominately decided economic outcomes, and who greedily aggrandized themselves from society’s output.

So parecon’s class insight is that beyond capitalism there is classlessness, yes, as one option, but there is also coordinatorism, as another option, where coordinatorism is an economic system that retains the class division between those who monopolize empowering circumstances in their work – the coordinator class – and those who mainly follow orders and suffer tedious conditions – the working class – and in which the coordinators rule the workers.

My belief that parecon solves the class problem is therefore that I think (a) parecon solves the problem of identifying the key classes. And (b) parecon solves the problem of accomplishing economic functions without incurring class division and class rule.

Parecon doesn’t elevate coordinators above workers but instead creates conditions in which no group has interests putting it in opposition to the interests of other groups and conveying to it means to dominate those other groups.

The features of parecon that are most central to its solving the class problem are seeing that economics produces people and social relations, not simply outputs; understanding that not only ownership relations but also the conditions under which people work and the things they do impact both their collective motives and their operational means; realizing that corporate divisions of labor and market allocation produce the coordinators as a separate and dominating class; and finally committing to balanced job complexes and participatory planning in their place.

Reason 2. Parecon solves the problem of economic self management.

I became a leftist in the mid 1960s. People controlling their own lives was a key theme of our new leftist commitments. It was quite natural, then, to like the idea of self management. On the other hand, what did self management mean? It couldn’t be that I could do any old thing I wanted, clearly. And that wasn’t just because I might want to employ someone as a wage slave, or even as a personal slave, or I might want to steal or kill or whatever. More to the point, I can’t just do any work I hanker to, or consume any item I hunger too. I am a citizen, a member of society. Managing myself has to be done consistent with others being able to manage themselves to the same degree.

In time, following the above logic, self management came to mean to me that I and everyone should have a say over decisions that affect us proportionate to the extent of their effect on us. Sometimes, fifty percent rule was the best approximation to everyone having that level of influence. Other times, consensus was the best way to achieve it. Sometimes two thirds required for a decision was best, or even one person deciding, as in me deciding how to arrange my desk. Likewise, sometimes, when a lot is at stake, extensive discussion, debate, and refinement of proposals made sense as part of attaining self management. But other times, when less was at stake, quicker procedures would be better. Following through the implications of this approach, it didn’t take long to realize that if we should all have a say in decisions in proportion as they affect us – not with an anal idiocy as if decision making were a math problem, of course, but broadly and up to the point where trying for further precision would cost us more in time and hassle than it would gain in desirable decision making – the implications for economics were pretty extreme.

An economy is a general system in which each part, including each choice, sets the context for all other parts and choices. If I consume a pencil, you can’t consume that pencil. More, if we together in our society produce 100,000 pencils, we aren’t producing whatever we could have with the labor and resources that went to the pencils. There is an opportunity cost – that’s what economists call this – to every choice. Doing any one thing foregoes using the component energy, resources, and labor to do some other thing. But this means every decision affects every actor, albeit some actors far more than others. So, the workers producing pencils are mightily affected by pencil production, those consuming pencils are highly affected by it, but those who don’t want pencils are also affected, because, among other implications, if no one got any pencils there might be more pens or cheaper ones, or more of something else for those who didn’t want pencils.

So the self management problem is pretty hairy. For an economy to be self managing workers must have a say in their workplaces about their activities as producers and consumers must have a say about what they get to eat or wear or ride, or whatever, and also about what is available, and this needs to be true of all actors in proportion as they are affected, which of course varies from case to case and from item to item.

So it isn’t just that we have workers councils and consumers councils and that each council uses self managed decision making methods in its deliberations and choices. That much is essential, to be sure, but it is also necessary that the interface between workers in one plant and another, and between consumers in one region and another, and between workers and consumers throughout the economy, are handled in a self managing way with all actors having appropriate influence.

Suppose workers in a plant make their local operating decisions in the most self managing manner conceivable, but that central planners tell them how much they must produce, or for that matter, some other mechanism, such as markets, imposes output levels on them which they have too little say over. Goodbye self management. Likewise, suppose consumers get to choose what they want from among society’s outputs, individually and collectively, using highly self managing methods such as looking at lists of availabilities and freely choosing among them, but what they choose from is determined overwhelmingly without their having an impact. Again: goodbye self management. And there are many other variations such as those who breathe pollution not having a say in car sales unless they happen to be the buyer, or those who produce bicycles not affecting the availability of rubber or of roads for riding, or for that matter affecting either too much, and so on.

So, my belief that parecon solves the self management problem is that I think (a) it solves the problem of defining most usefully what self management means while also understanding and highlighting its central importance. And (b) it solves the problem of accomplishing economic functions without imparting to some actors more than proportionate say and to others less than proportionate say, but, instead, at least within an acceptable margin of deviation – and sometimes with errors, but never with systematic and snowballing errors – allots proportionate self managing say to all.

The features of parecon that are most critical to its solution to the self management problem are understanding that each person’s freedom needs to extend to the point of others having similar freedom but should not extend further than that; understanding that not only what we do immediately day to day has to be self managed, but also the broad context in which we make those day to day choices; realizing that familiar corporate divisions of labor and market allocation produce the coordinator class as a separate and dominating elite with excessive say over outcomes thereby grossly violating self management; realizing that sharply hierarchical decision making likewise destroys self management; and finally institutionally committing to self managed councils, balanced job complexes and participatory planning in place of the offending capitalist and coordinatorist options.

Reason 3. Parecon attains equity.

Regarding equity, there is first a conceptual problem, and then an issue of how to act on the results. Parecon examines remuneration and arrives at a particular norm – that we should each receive for our socially useful contributions to the economy a share of its outputs in proportion to the effort and sacrifice we expend – which is to say that we should get more income if we work at useful production longer, harder, or enduring more onerous conditions, as should everyone else, and for no other reason.

This is a value, which is to say, a matter of preference. Someone might think, instead, that it is equitable for Bill Gates to get income equal to that of whole populations of numerous countries combined by virtue of owning property. It is fair for him to receive the value of the property’s product. Or someone might think it is equitable for Tiger Woods to get less but still incredibly gargantuan income by virtue the value of his fantastic athletic talent to those who like to watch golf tournaments. Or someone might even think – this person probably had to go to business school to develop this highly trained and sophisticated viewpoint – that a thug with great bargaining power – I have in mind our corporate centers of power but it applies to many others as well, such as the coordinator class – can equitably use it to extort income. But parecon, in contrast to these more familiar preferences about remuneration, rejects remunerating property, or remunerating bargaining power, or even remunerating personal output. You don’t get more income in a parecon because you are born with talents or capacities that are highly valued, or because you happen to produce something highly valued, or because you work with highly productive partners, or because you own property, or because you are personally or collectively strong enough to take it. You get more simply for working longer, or harder, or at worse conditions, as long as you are producing valued output.

So that’s parecon’s remunerative norm. You probably noticed already that I am a stickler for mentioning that the product of work that earns income has to be socially useful. You can’t work hard digging holes in your back yard and filling them. Nor can you work hard at making something useful and desired, but do the work in a slipshod or incompetent fashion. In such cases, you are not creating socially desired outputs commensurate to the labor you are expending, which is to say not all the time or effort you are expending is warranted by the desirability of its product and therefore not all of it deserves full remuneration. Similarly, I can’t be shortstop for the Yankees or quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts in a parecon. My efforts would not be appreciated, being little different for those watching than if I were digging holes and filling them.

The claim that parecon attains equity thus means that parecon’s combination of methods and structures ensures that each actor who is able to work is afforded a share of the social product of his or her choosing in proportion to the effort and sacrifice he or she (usefully) expends. Parecon is not manic to the tenth decimal place about this, of course. Rather, in different pareconish workplaces workers will adopt methods and norms that they prefer, consistent, however, with the overarching guidelines. What parecon contributes regarding equity is, first, clarification as to its meaning and composition and, second, institutions that facilitate attaining it, which are, again, the participatory planning system, the self managed councils, and so on.

Reason 4. Parecon promotes economic solidarity.

There is a substantial and important movement of activists that is largely but not exclusively centered in Latin America and parts of Europe, that says they favor what they call solidarity economics. There is a lot more to be said about this, but in essence what they are saying is that they reject an economy that causes actors to see one another as opponents or as means to ends. They want economic relations to align actors so that the interests of each are in accord with the interests of others, at least in most respects. I am still competing with Peyton Manning or Derek Jeter if I want to be quarterback of the Colts or shortstop of the Yankees, since it is true that we can’t all have the spot. But once we do have responsibilities and tasks in the economy, advocates of solidarity economics want an arrangement that causes each person’s pursuit of gain to be consistent with and to even enhance everyone else’s pursuit of gain, rather than my attaining gains meaning you do worse, or vice versa. Even more, it would be nice to have an economy that nurtures empathy by causing even those of us who are most greedy and egocentric to have no choice but to be cognizant of and even supportive of other’s needs and aspirations, if we are to meet our own. That would be serious solidarity. And seeking such an end provides a positive aim as compared to just avoiding the manipulative, often violent, and nearly always egocentric personal and class self aggrandizing rat race that is typical of current economies.

So the claim that parecon promotes economic solidarity means parecon creates a context in which for me to materially advance either means the whole social product grows – which benefits everyone – or that I work longer, harder, or at worse conditions, which doesn’t impede others from earning similarly if they wish to. More, it means when we consider choices for new technologies or other investments, my interests and other people’s interests never systematically and repetitively clash and, most often, are even in accord. For example, we all benefit from the most effective reduction in onerous labor, not simply from a change instituted in our own workplaces, because when the dust settles we all wind up with average work conditions, so attaining the best average is in everyone’s interest. What creates this context, again, is parecon’s institutions, in particular its remunerative scheme, job complexes, and allocation system.

Reason 5. Parecon can help overcome cynicism, a large obstacle to activism.

There is no alternative, gleefully intoned Margaret Thatcher, offering the claim as a reason for accepting the horrors of capitalism. And the problem with her position isn’t its logic. If there actually is no alternative, or even if there is just no better alternative, then, indeed, it does make sense to make do with what we have. The point is, not just for Thatcher but for most people, leftist entreaties to activism are seen as juvenile idiocy. People who feel that way tell us to get a life. They tell us to grow up. And they are not being perverse. I might say it, myself, to someone who kept regaling me with entreaties to fight against aging, or to fight against gravity, or to blow into the wind, or to hold back the tide. These are fool’s errands. They are hopeless because they lead nowhere. And that’s how much of the population sees our activism. If it isn’t one war it will be another. If that group over there isn’t homeless or starving, some other group will be. It is just the way of the world, they believe. And that belief in the inevitability of the pains all around us, ensures social passivity. A person might have great energy for their job, or for their interpersonal relations, or for some sport or hobby, but they do not have great energy for social change because social change seems to be a dead end. Revolution and even big reform seems to be a fool’s errand.

To me, this cynicism seems to be a paramount obstacle so centrally important that overcoming it is a precondition for building truly large and sustained movements. And what I mean by claiming that parecon can help overcome this type of cynicism, therefore, is that if parecon is widely shared and clearly enunciated, and of course if I am right about its merits, it can cause people to reasonably recognize that indeed there is a viable and worthy alternative to capitalism.

Reason 6. Parecon can inform activist focus in ways that are essential to success.

What demands should we make? When we make demands, how should we talk about why we want the changes we seek, where the changes will lead, and what should follow from the changes? Seeking gains that improve people’s lives is a worthy pursuit. Seeking such gains in a manner that raises consciousness of fundamental problems in the present and of preferable future alternatives, and that arouses desires for and belief in the latter, is a wonderful thing to do. The latter type projects not only seek to meet needs better than they are currently being met, they also auger further changes and prepare the way for them.

So by claiming that parecon can inform activist focus, I mean parecon can help us choose, advocate, and win aims, all in ways that not only address the present pains people feel, but that also lead toward a sought after future. Parecon can help us be strategic in the very precise sense of orienting our efforts not only in light of where we are now, but also in light of where we want to wind up in the future.

Reason 7. Parecon can inform activist organization in ways that are essential to success.

It is an old anarchist adage, and I think a very correct one, that we need to try to incorporate the seeds of the future in the present. The idea is simple enough. Our movements, in their internal organizational structure, decision-making methods, modes of remuneration, divisions of labor, and relations to other efforts should try as much as possible to embody, refine, and advocate for the relations we desire to live under in the future. As such, we should have movements that embody what we seek for race relations, gender relations, decision making relations, and class relations.

Parecon, this last claim says, can inform how we construct and carry out our projects, organizations, and movements, causing us to incorporate, as best we are now able, councils, self managed decision making, equitable remuneration, balanced job complexes, and even interrelations among actors that embody the logic and sometimes the features of participatory planning. Without a vision of what the future might be, embodying the future’s features in the present is utterly impossible. And so parecon can help with this problem, too.

If the claims above are true, any of them ought to be enough, it seems to me, to motivate extensive and even obsessive effort to get parecon (or some other vision which accomplished such ends) widely known, refined, and supported. Surely the combination of all these claims ought to motivate such commitment among many people. Or it ought to do that, that is, unless there is an overarching problem with adopting parecon, or any vision, for that matter, which obviates the benefits. In other words, parecon might be good at some very important things, as claimed above, yet there may nonetheless be some other failing that it has that makes it wise to shy away from support.

And, indeed, I think that in a prophylactic sort of way, this has been a major obstacle to overcome in communicating about vision per se and about parecon in particular. Many people, and ironically it is often precisely those who by their values most desire a self managed economy, think there is a contradiction between seeking liberty and freedom and espousing any institutional vision at all, no matter how good it may be. They think that advocating clearly described institutions for a new society is contrary to in fact seeking such a new society. They think the act of adopting a self managing vision puts the lie to actually seeking that vision. They think arguing for a self managing vision corrupts one’s efforts to attain it, however well motivated those efforts may be, by forcing them into an authoritarian mold that is unlikely to win change, but which would be even worse if it did win change, since advocating a vision means a movement will be sectarian and top down in its dynamics, leading to a world we would rather not inhabit.

So, finally, in explaining my motivations to give so much of my time, energy, and emotional commitment to economic and social vision, I have to explain, I think, why this counter argument to the positive reasons I offered above doesn’t deter me. Why don’t I feel that by urging widespread adoption of a vision, I automatically engender sectarianism and obstruct attaining a truly self managed economy?

I have to admit that I am befuddled by this objection to parecon and to vision more generally. It seems to be saying that unless the future is brought into being without being thought about, discussed, debated, refined, and widely self consciously sought, it won’t be participatory, classless, and self managing. To me, however, this claim seems to be exactly the opposite of the truth.

How can a movement win a dramatically different future unless, at some point, it is seeking it? How can a movement be participatory and attain a really self managing economy and society, unless it is seeking such a society not due to orders delivered from the top, but due to the desires and insights of huge numbers of members each of whom knows what they are trying to win? How can a huge number of a movement’s members be seeking particular institutional innovations, including being critical of choices that would compromise or obstruct those gains, unless they know what the sought institutions look like, why they are valuable, and how they would work? And how can a large number of participants have such knowledge and have the confidence to act on it, unless they have discussed, debated, and refined their aims – which means, how can they do it unless they become advocates of shared vision via a process that initially includes smaller numbers of people – the vision’s earliest advocates – making known their views, publicly and accessibly, for purposes of ensuing debate, refinement, etc.?

It seems to me, in other words, that while the worries that make many people nervous about movements arriving at a shared vision are perfectly reasonable, the solution many people adopt – which is to opt for no vision at all – insures that a movement will wind up with a vision that people who aren’t worried about top down dynamics develop. In other words, the proposed solution would yield what is feared. What people’s justified fears of sectarianism should imply for us, instead of having no vision which is self defeating, is that we should adopt vision flexibly, with an open mind, welcoming criticism and debate, and always ready and even eager to make changes. People with concerns about giving time to developing and advocating vision often say that what we want for our future should arise from our experiences. I agree. Of course it should arise from our experiences. Indeed, where else has parecon or any other vision come from other than our assessments of our accumulated experiences including about two hundred years of anti capitalist activism, and also a few decades of our own personal experiences, including experiments with the ideas themselves?

It seems to me that the view that “we shouldn’t do vision because vision is elitist and isn’t participatory” obstacle is either an incredibly defeatist attitude that says if we have vision we will be sectarian and authoritarian about it automatically despite any contrary intentions and methods we have, or it is a confusion of what participation means and of how humans operate. The view seems to me to denigrate thought itself, implying that to think about the hard question of how to organize a better economy, or a better polity, culture, kinship, or whatever, somehow means that one is arrogant, that one is spinning one’s abstract wheels without rooting oneself in reality, that one is doing something that only a very few can do and so it won’t yield participation, and so on. But all of this, while certainly a possible path that ought to be avoided, is also certainly not the only possible path. We can instead adopt vision publicly, socially, creatively, flexibly, accessibly. What is inevitable regarding vision, however, it has seemed to me, is that movements that don’t have shared compelling vision will not have large and powerful memberships that can actually embody the seeds of the future in the present, that can orient their actions to desirable goals, and that can incorporate real participation, including all members having equal chance to make the aims of the movement their own, understand them, adapt them, act in light of them, correct, refine, or supercede them, and finally win them.

To have a participatory movement doesn’t require that we have a movement that has no comprehension of where it is trying to go, much less one that glories in that condition. It doesn’t require that we have demands that are only a spontaneous product of daily practice, motivated only by the desires of the moment and not by thoughts about a better future. This type movement won’t dispel cynicism and thereby attract and retain sufficient membership to win a new world. More, even if this type movement could muster sufficient support to win change, it would not generate the world we seek because it would be beholden to privately held views of where to arrive conceived and then put into practice by people who were not worried about elitism, sectarianism, etc.

What our movement seems to me to need, instead of a visionless orientation, is shared vision that is classless and self managing, that is offered in the most accessible possible language, that welcomes debate and refinement, and that is possessed by all who seek a better world and not solely by some small group of leaders who dominate choices.

Thus, that is what I have tried to contribute to, over all these years, in what I hope has been a rationally calculated aggressive obsession and not an insecurely reflexive defensive obsession. Hopefully, steadily greater numbers of people will enrich and enlarge this pursuit.

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