I need not recite the Parecon (participatory economics) analysis; Znet readers can simply click on the links to the left for abundant references. But to make the point generally, what is important in my view is that Parecon provides the growing numbers of discontented Americans with something that is largely absent and urgently needed. It provides the language to understand what is going on, not just in terms of personalities and individuals, but also in terms of institutions. The difference is critical.
When we read the news about Iraq, for example, the language has to do with Bush, terrorism, deaths of innocents and combatants, the opinions of the pundits or members of government, levels of support among the populace and so on. The language and insights of a Parecon analysis would add to this mix such terms as class, property, markets, and participation. Such terms, and there are many others of course, provide an institutional understanding that helps to explain such things as larger economic interests, how just a tiny handful of people are able to make life and death decisions that impact millions and why adventures as Iraq ought to be expected.
Through the first set of terms, we see an individual president. Through the second set we see an individual president as part of a powerful class with very clear and specific interests that must be met. Within the first set, Iraq appears to be a disaster. It appears almost unprecedented. Within the second set, we see a history, a pattern of aggression. We are less sure that Iraq is a disaster; perhaps the owners of vast amounts of property are getting what they want in spite of the costs to others. Within the first framework, we are compelled to be anti-Bush. Within the second, we are compelled to oppose to the institutions that require Bush now – and tomorrow.
With an institutional analysis, such as the one Parecon provides, our opposition is cutting, forceful and ties into a compelling vision. Without an institutional analysis, there is no opposition. Only discontent.
But why the urgency?
Take a look at the kind of conversations we typically find in the media or have with friends in an everyday context. Such conversations largely turn on familiar, everyday categories – personal likes and dislikes, individual actions and choices, deceit and honesty. We see an incompetent president losing popularity, sinking in the polls. We sense that more and more people are agreeing that Iraq has become a quagmire; even “hawks” are calling for a quick withdrawal. We see the president’s political allies, a number of neo-con leaders under criminal investigation. Everyday there seems to be new evidence of deceit at the highest levels of government. The concept of “Watergate” is bandied about. We might, from this perspective, agree with mainstream wise-man David Gergen that “The wheels are coming off.” And so we might conclude that the tide is turning our way, that we stand on the eve of a period of promising social reform.
On the other hand, if we look through an institutional lens, one that illuminates the relationship between economics and politics as does Parecon, we see something entirely different. Let’s start with a single feature of our economy, one that Parecon challenges, the right of individuals to privately own productive property and alone make decisions that impact the lives of others so enormously. From this perspective, we see a history. Iraq is not fundamentally new. It looks like Vietnam, yes. But it also looks like US aggression toward the Philippines in the 1880s or Mexico in the 1840s or the elimination of the Native American population that lasted over 100 years. In fact, the entire history of the US is the history of the unrelenting expansion of privatization.
Through our institutional lens, we see that the rush to privatize has become a runaway train, with 1% of the population now owning practically everything and deciding practically everything. We notice that the term “neo” in both neo-con and neo-liberal signifies a “new” agreement among both conservatives and liberal elites that further concentration of private ownership is a good and necessary thing.
Now, when the aggression toward Iraq is seen as a drive to privatize, Team Bush looks considerably more successful. Thus far they are getting away with it. And why shouldn’t they get away with? If we aren’t talking “privatization” we sure as hell can’t oppose it. In fact, we won’t even know that it is going on. Some opposition we are!
Well, what about the political side of things? Suppose we could impeach Bush, would that go a long way toward solving our problems?
Hardly. Again, take a look at our institutions. The Framers designed our political system so that the interest of the “opulent few” would be protected against the ” the overbearing and interested majority,” to borrow Madison’s language. Our first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay, succinctly as anyone, captured the essence of the framework of our politics: “the people who own the country ought to govern it.” And so they do – without their ability to do so being opposed.
“Our” public airwaves provide the basis of “their” thought control. “Our” Pentagon, by expanding domestic surveillance of “us,” is shoring up its defense of “them.” Suppose following an attack on Iran we took to the streets and were labeled “enemy combatants.” “Our” federal courts, which recently have been stripped of their ability to hear applications for habeas corpus, would afford no protection. Off to the slammer we would go and the key could be thrown away. Looking through an institutional lens – as opposed to a personal one, it appears that we may be closer to marshal law than an historic progressive turn. And the kicker is that we often make the case, as many did following Katrina, that if only we got back to our founding principles, we would be much better off!
Again we see not just the necessity but also the urgency of Parecon. If we are at a tipping point, a Watergate moment, it would behoove us to articulate alternative sets of institutions – and not just personalities – that are capable of projecting our decency and our sense of equality, justice and peace.
If we fail to do this, if we inveigh against just the large corporations that “poison us” and “torture animals” – to cite just one example, without understanding that this evil has less to do with the largeness of corporations or morality of individuals than it does with the rights granted to them all by the very institutions which we call “free,” then we shall remain beautiful souls all, keeping the faith deep within the bowels of empire.
On the other hand, if we are able to look through an institutional lens and have some familiarity with the way in which some institutions so powerfully structure our lives, we might then become a force. We might then have a better chance of moving past Bush and his class, when he goes down.