Olympic Parecon

Is anyone else bemused by the media’s coverage of America’s purported sports stars of the Winter Olympics? Parents tell kids, over and over, it isn’t whether you win or lose, but how you play the game that matters. Don’t glorify victory. Don’t demonize defeat. Just do your best. And enjoy yourself.

Along comes Bode Miller, one of the best skiers in the world. He says the same thing before racing and after losing. He has a demeanor that says he really means it. He is enjoying his time in Turin. And he is widely decried as un-American, if not insane.

Along comes Lindsay Jacobellis, perhaps the best at snowboard racing, a World Champion, and in a moment of exuberance at the very end of a fantastic performance, she trips herself up and blows the lead. Afterwards she comments that it was just a race – meaning, I raced well, I am okay with it, let’s move on. She is smiling, not crying – enjoying herself. She is decried as a blemish on society, the sport, and even humanity.

Leftists ought to realize that the reason this all happens is because we live in a savage market economy in which the credo that winning is everything is imposed by market logic. If we deny it for sports, we may deny it more generally, and that is to dangerous a prospect to tolerate.

Thus, there exists a gap between what American tell their young children, in moments of true insight about life, and what they endure from media and institutions, and are forced to pledge fealty to in adult intercourse. In markets, nice guys finish last, so by all means, don’t be nice.

Is there another way? What do we make of sports and athletics, if we look at them from the angle of a better future? Are Miller and Jacobellis, however implicitly and limited, harbingers of a better way?

I favor a particular vision for economic life most broadly, called participatory economics, or parecon. Talking about parecon’s implications for athletics and athletes is barely different than for other domains such as science, art, etc.

First, parecon ensures that those who do athletic activity as part of their work responsibilities will be remunerated for their effort and sacrifice and have balanced job complexes and self managing work situations, self managing their industry via negotiated cooperative planning with all others in the economy..

What the empowerment ratio of playing tennis in one locale after another as a part of one’s work, or golf, or running, or playing chess, or soccer, or skiing or snowboarding, might turn out to be, only future assessments will reveal. But various pareconish sports industries will have internally balanced job complexes (among the playing, training, coaching, traveling, maintaining the fields, maintaining the stadium’s, transporting, cleaning, medically maintaining, and so on and so forth) and then also between their broad industry and the rest of the economy. Athlete will do a mix of things in their work life comparable for its empowering characteristics to what all others do.

Likewise the inputs and outputs of athletic industries will be cooperatively negotiated in the participatory planning process by workers councils of industries providing bats and balls, food, bandages, bikes, skies, skates, and other inputs, by industries providing sports performance, and by consumer’s councils expressing their preferences for athletic consumption.

It might be interesting to ask how a sports team, say in baseball, basketball, or soccer, will be redefined, including on the field coaching, off field coaching, distribution of tasks, and player motives and mentalities, and in how its output would alter, but just as delving deeply into such matters for symphony orchestras, or movie actors and crews, or writers/directors, or for that matter, truck drivers, cooks, or metal workers is beyond current knowledge or need, so too for athletes and for others associated with delivering athletic performances. It suffices regarding structure and inputs and outputs to understand the need for and implications of balanced job complexes and participatory planning. That’s the structural core of it. For more on those institutions, please see http://www.parecon.org

Here, however, we can say a bit more about the issue of athletic remuneration and after that, we can address a much broader question that may be troubling some readers which is would athletics still even exist as a part of a good economy, at least as something that is remunerated and consumed? Would we have bicycle riding as an enjoyable hobby and pastime, but not the Tour de France and other races with remuneration? Would people play chess with friends, but not in tournaments and for a world championship, as part of their income earning work? Would there be hobbyist leagues for hockey and cricket, football and soccer, tennis and golf, chess and go, bowling and racing (on foot, in cars, or on horseback), skiing and snowboarding, maintained by people earning for their labor, but with no people doing such sports activity itself as part of their social responsibility to work and thereby contribute to the overall social product, and thus no people earning income for the playing and practicing, per se?

Assuming for now the continued existence of people earning income for their sports playing, remuneration will be for effort and sacrifice, of course. That’s the parecon, classless way. But what does that mean in this context?

Consider a marathon race. Current remuneration in sum total for the runners might be, say two million dollars. If so, the first place winner may get, say, four hundred thousand, second place two hundred and fifty thousand, third place one hundred thousand, fourth place fifty thousand, and the remaining two hundred thousand may go in steadily diminishing installments to the next thirty or forty or perhaps even fifty or sixty finishers, with another thousand or more finishers each earning nothing for their endeavors.

If we consider, instead, the whole baseball industry, golf industry, soccer industry, track and field, bowling, car racing, skiing, skating, and chess industry instead, each is rather similar over the course of a year, with participants going from tremendous earnings at the top performance levels and athletic talent down to near zero or even below zero earnings (many athletes pay their own fees, transport, etc. and earn back less than that amount) for a huge majority of others. What changes about this picture in a parecon?

Consider the marathon, again. In a parecon remuneration isn’t for the position you finish at, but is for the effort and sacrifice you expend in socially valued labor. If society values your sport and its products enough to warrant its being a part of the socially planned economy, then as a participant (whether your main activity is athletic, organizational, maintenance, medical, or whatever) you will get remunerated for the duration of your socially valued work, for the intensity of you efforts, and for your work’s onerousness above or below the social average, but not for output per se – such as where you finish in a race.

Indeed, suppose you are, among your other responsibilities, a runner. Suppose you come in first, or fifth, or one hundred and fiftieth (just how slow a runner will be deemed fast enough to warrant being considered a producer of a valued output is a matter that will be determined by sports councils in their hiring practices and by participatory planning in establishing what is sought be audiences, just as with baseball, hockey, soccer, skiing, skating, etc.). What difference will your finishing position make to your income? The answer is it will make no difference unless you are doing better or worse in the race due to extra duration or intensity of work, as compared to due to natural talent, since it is the former only that is remunerated.

In other words, if you are a natural born jack rabbit competing in a marathon, you can’t waltz across the finish line first, expending little effort in the race and in preparations for it, and expect to get high remuneration. And even if you did exert disproportionately compared to the social average, and if you did work overtime and exceptionally hard to get ready, the extra income you would thereby earn would be proportionate to your effort and duration, and not to your results and therefore certainly not humongous, as it can be now. And the same holds for coming in thirty eighth instead of thirty ninth or fiftieth, etc.

And this remunerative approach is, of course, not only morally sound–which is to say one shouldn’t be remunerated extra much less in huge volume for natural born talent or even for the output of training as compared to the difficulty and intensity and duration of training–but it is also economically sound, which is to say it has the appropriate incentive effects.

What a runner needs as an incentive to run faster is not inordinate reward for natural born talent about which the runner can do nothing and which actually provides incentive only to win even if at a much slower pace than one is capable of, but added remuneration for the extra effort that goes into running faster or lower income for not expending full effort.

This is all well and good, and is also consistent with parecon more broadly, of course, and so by this time this kind of logic is hopefully not at all surprising. But, the question remains, will there be athletics as an economic industry–not just as a hobby–in a good economy at all?

Why not? Why won’t future citizens of a classless economy value viewing runners, bikers, kickers, shooters, passers, and hitters just as we do now, as exemplars of human performance in their respective fields? In that respect, how is it different than people wanting to see the work of the best painters, poets, novelists, sculptors, singers, composers, or performers?

If we will want to have symphonies or other performances, movies, shows, etc. in a good economy, with remuneration for their production and performance, why not want athletic events to watch, aspire to, admire, and enjoy as well, including remuneration for their production and performance?

Many critics of capitalism will still have their doubts about this, I suspect. Leftists dislike sports for its macho dynamics, its racial biases, its violence, its commercialism, and its class inequalities. But all this is gone, presumably, in a good society and economy. Nonetheless, many leftists will still wonder, I suspect, about competition being an imposed conflict among people, and a detriment.

They will say that while an orchestra aspires to the highest quality it can attain, and while we admire performances in accord with quality and we likewise enjoy and respect some compositions more than others, and likewise admire and enjoy some paintings, poetry, and novels more than others, even with this differential valuation, each product stands unto itself and there is no intrinsic necessity of continually having winners and losers. But with sports, this critic might add, there often is an intrinsic necessity and even centrality of winning and losing, which, they would say, differentiates sports and should in a good society make sports unworthy of elevation to an industry with remuneration for workers.

First, it is correct that a great many sports intrinsically involve competition. We can conceive of competition-free alternatives, but they are not the same thing. In the late 1960s I used to play with friends our own non competitive brand of basketball. You did score and defend in the playing of the game. But the score wasn’t germane and needn’t even be kept. A very good offensive player defended by a not so good defender would try to play in such a way as to bring out the defender’s best possible defensive effort making the defensive player play his or her best. The offensive expert has the difficult challenge of elevating the defender’s effort rather than simply scoring easily over and over.

Similarly, a really good defensive player covering a not so great offensive player would not shut the player down over and over, but would, instead, play with just the right tenacity and intrusiveness to spur the offensive player to play his or her best as well.

Playing this way was fun and challenging, but it wasn’t basketball of the sort people enjoy when watching the NBA, or college, or high school competitive games. And of course there are many sports in which there is barely even a way to imagine a non competitive variant–say chess or the hundred yard dash or a marathon, or car racing, or the pentathlon.

But what about the competition, urges the critic? We can’t want to reward and elevate that, can we?

Well, it is true that a central virtue of parecon is that participatory planning removes competition from economic allocation. Likewise remuneration is not competitive. There is no zero sum contest in participatory economic remuneration in which if I win you lose. However this is deemed a great virtue not out of an a priori rejection of something called competition, but for what it accomplishes vis a vis allowing the economy to propel rather than violate solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management.

So is competition per se a problem? If we don’t increase income for the winner of a contest for winning and we don’t reduce income for the loser for losing, and if winning and losing have no bearing on workplace influence and self management and don’t lead to benefits in job definition and conditions, why is competition problematic?

Parecon doesn’t deny different capacities in performers and producers. On the contrary, parecon has standards and admires excellence. You can’t get remunerated in a parecon for work that isn’t socially valued. I may want to be the shortstop on a baseball industry team, say the Yankees, but Derek Jeter is so much better that the public would not value and indeed would be horrified by my work at that position. My play is simply not good enough to be worthy of employment as a shortstop. There is a competition for the balanced job complex that includes playing shortstop for the Yankees. Indeed, there is also a competition in this same sense for other jobs.

Suppose, for example, that I want to be a physicist, an airplane pilot, or that I want to do heavy labor, or perform on Cello for my most rewarding work. So do other people, in some cases many more people than society needs. There is competition, therefore, for the honor of being able to be socially remunerated for each type of work. One must fulfill the social standards. If one can’t do the tasks well enough, one can partake to a degree as a hobby, of course, but not for remuneration.

Thus, a parecon is not without competition. But in the many parecon competitions, it isn’t winning or losing that yields a remuneration level or a level of say over work, or conditions of work. What the competition does, instead, is to generate, reveal, and utilize competence. The competition thus yields something we all benefit from and does so without threatening values we all hold dear.

Can athletic competition be similarly positive in its implications, without negative side effects?

Suppose you play a game of chess (and yes, I think chess is a sport with struggle, challenge, and endurance) or have a race with an opponent. Does the quality of the experience depend on whether you win or lose? It certainly might. It could be that you get more pleasure out of winning easily, for example, with no real challenge and even if you have played mundanely and inattentively due to your being a much better player than your opponent, than you get out of just barely losing a finely played and challenging game, due to your opponent being a bit better than you but with you playing at your absolute best. In this case, it is winning and losing that impacts your mood, not the quality of your play.

On the other hand, can we imagine a society in which you typically get more pleasure out of losing the match but playing really well due to having engaged in a really challenging and exciting struggle, than you do out of winning easily? Isn’t this what we tell our kids, in fact, all the time–that it’s how you play the game, not if you win or lose, that matters, and that this is true even though you must try to win, not lose, for there to be a game and high level play at all? Isn’t this what Bode Miller has been saying–one doesn’t know with what degree of comprehension–and being chastised for?

The effect of having a parecon in the economy on sports in society would certainly be profound. It would not mean teams and individuals don’t try to win. It would mean, however, that their incomes would not be pegged to winning or losing. We would want to see quality, as now, but we would not reward it per se.

Would athletes and audiences celebrate winners, or only those that manifest their capacities fully, or both? Would fans of a team get more pleasure out of its winning easily while playing poorly, or out of it losing a close and hard fought struggle but playing well?

In a good economy, would chess as something people can do for an income disappear because there must be a winner and a loser, or would it persist, including with a world champion, because we value quality of play and perseverance and wish to observe, study, and enjoy talent and endurance and effort applied strenuously in this area, like in so many other areas?but without win-loss-based reward or penalty?

What about golf, soccer, basketball? For that matter, would boxing disappear for being too violent a competition, or would it remain as an amazing struggle at the most basic level? What would become of car racing, or horse racing, or marathons? How about archery, or the javelin, or pole vaulting? Not to mention skiing and skateboarding?

We can’t know for certain the answers to these questions about the future (not least because different societies may well answer differently) any more than we can know for certain about diverse other industries what outputs they will have in the future. Nor is there any reason to be agitated about this vagueness of possible prognosis. A vision for an economy or for any other part of life isn’t about figuring out what choices future workers and consumers or other citizens will make. It is about figuring out what institutional relations will permit workers and consumers and citizens more generally to make choices they prefer while furthering values they hold dear.

We can confidently assert that participatory economics, or, if you prefer, a desirable classless economy, will make equitable the way athletes are remunerated, will balance their jobs, and will no doubt also impact the way athletes are viewed and their influence in society. We can also assert that parecon will likely change the way people regard and enjoy competitions.

Now we have star athletes earning millions and lording it over most of humanity. In a pareconish future we will have star athletes earning like all other citizens.

Now we have sports subordinated to profit and power with all kinds of other hierarchies also operative. In a pareconish future sports will be like all other economic pursuits, solidaritous, diverse, equitable, and self managed.

The precise details of the future content and texture of athletics, both for remuneration and in leisure time, as with the precise details of the future content and texture of music, art, literature, transportation, education, dining, fashion, or anything else that will exist, be prevalent, be unusual, or even be ruled out in a future society, are for future citizens to work out in their own free and formidable fashion.

What an advocate of parecon urges is only that the economic context in which people exercise their preferences have as defining features workers and consumers councils, self managed decision making, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning. But this is enough, it seems, to guarantee that participatory economic relations fit compatibly with enlightened athletics and vice versa.

In a parecon future my guess is there would be varied reactions to Bode Miller and Lindsay Jacobellis, for diverse subtle reasons. But there certainly would not be incredulity that a person values performance and human relations more than merely winning – gold. Quite the contrary.


This article is adapted from a chapter of the new book from Zed, Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism. The url for the book page is http://www.zmag.org/realizinghope.html

Other chapters address politics, race, religion, gender, sexuality, generations, science, technology, art, education, journalism, ecology, international relations, and also strategy for change in general–as well as spelling out the economic vision, parecon, in more detail than there was room for above.

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