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Building A Pareconish Movement


{ This paper was prepared for the June 1 – 7 2006 first Z Sessions on Vision and Strategy, held in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. These sessions gather activists from around the world to share ideas and experiences regarding social vision and strategy. }

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For ZSVS I would like to offer ten claims about the vision and strategy of participatory economics. I believe each claim is true. I also believe each claim is important enough that projects, organizations, and movements seeking a better world ought to embrace the ten claims to help inspire and orient our efforts. My priority in this presentation is not to address all possible claims even about pareconish movement building, much less about movement building in its entirety. Nor is my priority to recount all reasons for advocating the few claims that I do offer or to address all possible doubts people may have. Instead I hope to elicit in reply to the largely bald claims reasons people may have for rejecting any of them and I hope to inspire people to explore and act on collective reactions, perhaps coming to some shared agreement or at least clarity about disagreement.

Claim 1: We need shared institutional vision to inspire hope, incorporate the seeds of the future in the present, and guide gains that will take us to where we want to wind up. We must create such vision.

The idea that “there is no alternative,” Margaret Thatcher’s TINA, cements reaction. First, uprooting this cynical view requires a convincing case for an alternative. Second, we cannot incorporate seeds of an unknown future in our present endeavors. The unknown is unknown. To prefigure the future, we need shared vision. Finally, third, we cannot contour our demands and procedures to lead where we want to arrive if we don’t know where that is. Strategy certainly has to pay attention to existing relations lest it exceed or fall short of possibilities. But strategy also has to pay attention to sought vision, lest it run in circles or, worse, lead away from a desirable destination.

No one who rejects developing and sharing vision rebuts these simple arguments. Instead, opponents of the importance of vision emphasize that a proposed vision can congeal inflexibly to exclude new insights. A proposed vision can fuel sectarianism. A proposed vision can overextend into details that aren’t knowable, consequential, or a matter for prior determination. It can become frivolous and divert attention from more important concerns. Worst, a proposed vision can be monopolized as a bludgeon to aggrandize power.

Such worries shouldn’t be dismissed. They do constitute a real and present danger. But the correct implication is not to reject having shared vision. The correct implication is to arrive at and hold vision flexibly. It is to welcome constructive criticism and seek continual innovation regarding vision. It is to focus on essentials and not overextend. It is to share results widely, openly, and without elite jargon or posturing.

Finally, the fact that a non elitist, flexible way of having vision and of using it to inform activism may be difficult to achieve is no more an argument against having vision, then the fact that having participatory political organizations, militant struggles, informative and yet inspiring analyses of what is, worthy and yet winnable demands, and effective tactics in ways that are not sectarian, over extended, or elitist is difficult implies that we should not have these also necessary components of making change.

Claim 2: Classlessness ought to be part of our economic goal. We must end the rule of the capitalist class over labor. We must also end the rule of the coordinator class over labor.

To have classes means to have groups which by their position in the economy have different access to income and influence, including benefiting at one another’s expense. Attaining classlessness, instead, means establishing an economy in which everyone by their economic position is equally able to participate, utilize capacities, accrue income, etc.

We cannot eliminate the distinction between those who own means of production and those who do not own means of production, unless no one owns means of production, or, conversely, and what amounts to the same thing, unless everyone owns means of production equally. That much is an obvious tenet of advocating a new classless economy beyond capitalism. All socialists, for example, accept this view.

But class division can also arise due to a division of labor which affords some producers, who I call the coordinator class, far greater influence and income than other producers, who I call the working class. Claim 2 focuses on this latter point which many socialists, even, do not accept.

A modern capitalist economy has owners who we call capitalists. It also has people who have no economically structurally built-in power other than owning their own ability to do work. These people must sell that ability, and are called workers. The controversial/important thing about Claim 2 is that it notices that capitalism also has a third class, the coordinator class, who, though they sell their ability to do work like workers, unlike workers also have great power and standing built into their position in the economic division of labor. These coordinator class members, lawyers, doctors, engineers, managers, accountants, elite professors, and so on, do for their labor largely and even overwhelmingly empowering tasks. By their position in the economy they accrue information, skills, confidence, energy, and access to means of influencing daily outcomes. They largely control their own tasks and define, design, determine, control, or constrain the tasks of workers below. They utilize their empowering conditions to enhance their position most often at the expense of workers below and, as well, also in conflict with capitalists above.

Capitalism is by this pareconish account a three class system. Seeking classlessness therefore means not just eliminating capitalist rule, but also not constructing coordinator class rule in its place. “Out with the old boss in with the new boss” does end having bosses. To eliminate private ownership but retain the distinction between the coordinator class and working class ensures, by the structure of the coordinator/worker relationship, that the coordinator class will rule the working class. This type change can end capitalism, and has done so, on occasion, historically, but this type change will not attain classlessness, and it has not done so, not even on so much as one occasion, historically.

Claim 2 says our aims must take us beyond what have been called market socialism and centrally planned socialism (which systems have in fact been market coordinatorism and centrally planned coordinatorism called such for elevating the coordinator class to ruling status). Our movements and projects must not only be anti-capitalist, that is, they must be pro-classlessness. They must prioritize both eliminating the monopoly of capitalists on productive property and also the monopoly of coordinators on empowering work.

Claim 3: Beyond classlessness, for the economy we also ought to seek positive economic values including equity, solidarity, diversity, self management, ecological balance, and economic efficiency in utilizing assets to meet needs and develop potentials.

To be against something bad – such as class division and class rule – is very desirable, of course. But rejecting bad features does not generate clear standards for positive goals. To transcend dissent and become constructive, we need positive values that we can measure new institutions against. Claim 3 is about positive values.

Economics affects how much we each get from what we all produce. We want equitable outcomes and what’s equitable is that each person who is able to work receives back from society in proportion to what they expend at a cost to themselves in production. We should be remunerated, that is, for the duration, intensity, and, when it varies from person to person, the onerousness of our socially valued work. This is a matter of preference, of course, not proof, but it is certainly consistent with the most morally enlightened left thought. And, more, remunerating effort and sacrifice is also economically sound. It provides appropriate incentives to elicit what each individual has the ability to in fact withhold or provide: his or her socially valuable time, intensity, and willingness to endure hardship. Our first value is equity.

Economics affects relations among people. Anyone who isn’t pathological would presumably prefer to have people concerned with and caring about one another in a cooperative social partnership – rather than seeking to fleece one another in an anti social competitive shoot out. Our second value is solidarity.

Economics affects our range of available options. We are limited beings who have neither time nor means to each do everything. We are also social beings who can enjoy vicariously what others do that we cannot. And finally we are thinking and pragmatic beings who can benefit from avoiding over dependence on narrow options that leave us stranded if some of those limited options are flawed. Homogeneity of options delimits possibilities and risks over dependence on flawed scenarios. Diversity of options enriches possibilities and protects against errors. Our third value is diversity.

Economics affects how much say we each have over what is produced, in what quantities, by what methods, with what apportionment of people to tasks, and with what product allotted to people. Economic decisions determine outcomes that in turn affect us. For that matter, the act of decision making itself also affects us by influencing our mood, our sense of involvement and efficacy, and our sense of personal worth.

Save in exceptional cases, there is no moral or operational reason any one person should have excessive say compared to how much they are affected, nor is there any moral or operational reason for any one person to have insufficient say compared to how much they are affected. One decision-making norm can apply to all people equally, exceptional cases aside, yet can also respect the variation of specific operational needs from case to case. By this pattern of thought we arrive at a fourth value, self management. We should each have a say in decisions in proportion as those decisions affect us. Means of developing, discussing, debating, tallying, and acting on preferences are context dependent. No single approach such as majority vote, two thirds vote, consensus, and various methods of information dissemination and deliberation will optimally all cases. What will suit all cases, however, is the overarching self management norm by which we choose among possible means of decision making in each instance.

Economics affects relations to our natural surroundings. An economy should not compel us to destroy our natural habitat leaving ourselves a decrepit environment to endure. But nor should an economy compel us to so protect the natural habitat that we are left no means with which to fulfill ourselves in its embrace. What an economy should instead do is reveal the full and true social costs and benefits of contending choices, including accounting for their impact on ecology, and convey to workers and consumers control over what choices to finally implement. In that way we can cooperatively care for both our environment and ourselves, in relative proportions that we freely choose. Our fifth value is therefore ecological balance, understood in this broad manner of incorporating ecological information and attentiveness into economic calculation and decision.

Economics finally of course also affects the social output we have available for people to enjoy. That is indeed the reason economies exist. If an economy abides the above preferred values but wastes our energy and resources by producing output that fails to meet needs and develop potentials, or by producing harmful byproducts that offset the benefits of intended products, or by splurging what is valuable in inefficient methods as a result wasting assets needlessly, it diminishes our prospects. Even as an economy operates in accord with equity, solidarity, diversity, self management, and ecological balance, it should also efficiently utilize available natural, social, and personal assets without undo waste or misdirection of purpose.

These values together require classlessness, but they also go beyond seeking classlessness to provide positive guidelines for institutional choices. Claim 3 is that other things equal, in any economy more equity, solidarity, diversity, self management, ecological balance, and productive efficiency is good – and less of any or all of these qualities is bad. Economic institutions should by their operations as well as their outcomes advance these qualities, not violate much less obliterate them.

Claim 4: While economics is profoundly important, which is why we seek to build a pareconish movement, we do not live by economics alone and economics is not alone profoundly important. A pareconish agenda for movement building must address other central sides of social life consistently with parecon’s economic structure but also respectful of equally prioritized agendas to revolutionize those other sides of life.

A new and better world will include new and better economics, yes, but also new and better relations of kin and family, religion, race, and culture, law, adjudication, and collective action, ecological arrangement, and international relations, and also of more specific parts of life in these and other dimensions as well, such as science, art, education, health, and so on.

We therefore need vision to learn, inspire, rebut cynicism, and guide practice not only for economics, but for kin relations and socializing, cultural and community relations, legislative and juridical relations, ecology, and international relations.

More, just as our economic vision and strategies provide a context that feminist vision and strategy, cultural vision and strategy, political vision and strategy, ecological vision and strategy, and global relations vision and strategy must abide and augment, so too, in reverse, feminist, cultural, political, ecological, and global relations vision and strategy provide a context that pareconish economic vision and strategy must abide and augment.

In every case, new arrangements in one realm will have to fit compatibly with new arrangements in other realms. Movements for a new world will have to combine vision and strategy across spheres of social life. They should not prioritize one area of focus above the rest as that would be morally bankrupt and strategically suicidal.

It follows that insofar as we develop a pareconish vision and strategy for economic life, to be worthy it must incorporate not only the seeds of the future economy, but also the seeds of the future vision we share for other defining parts of life. The same urgency and standards that we apply to economy we must apply as well to other domains, fulfilling the need for compatible activism.

Claim 5: Seeking classlessness as in Claim 2 as well as the positive values of Claim 3 as well as accommodating economy to gains in other spheres of social life and vice versa as in Claim 4, compels us to reject private ownership of productive property, corporate divisions of labor, top down decision making, markets, and central planning.

Without belaboring the obvious, each of these institutional possibilities ubiquitous in the world around us, intrinsically violates one or more (and usually all) of the norms set forth above. For example, noting even just the most obvious violations, private ownership produces capitalist class rule over coordinators and workers. It obliterates equity by remunerating property and power. It obliterates self management by vesting primary power in the hands of owners.

Corporate divisions of labor produce coordinator class rule over workers. They negate self management by disempowering some and aggrandizing power to others, as does top-down decision making.

Markets obscure true social costs and benefits of all items that involve positive or negative effects that extend beyond immediate buyers and sellers. They lead to incredible misallocation of assets, particularly ecological, not to mention orienting output to maximizing surpluses rather than human well being. Markets also impose anti social behavior, nice guys finish last, and produce class division between coordinators and workers. Elevating coordinator class rule, the only subtle assertion about markets, occurs because firms must compete by cutting costs and because to cut costs firms will hire an elite that is freed from the implications of their cost cutting choices and that is callous to the immediate human implications of their choices.

Central planning, also intrinsically violates self management and imposes coordinator class rule to ensure obedience. Central planning typically also aggrandizes the ruling coordinator class at the expense of workers below, including centralizing control in ways that yield ecological imbalance.

For all these economic institutions, the propensity to produce class division in turn homogenizes options within classes which violates diversity and creates a war of class against class between classes which violates solidarity.

Beyond economics, capitalist relations also aggravate hierarchies of power, status, and wealth generated by other spheres of social life, for example aggravating and exploiting sexual, gender, racial, and political hierarchies born of extra-economic relations. Capitalism likewise produces ecological imbalance and even violates ecological sustainability. It produces as well a competitive rat race that, writ large, internationally unleashes colonialism, imperialism, neo colonialism, empire, unimaginably extreme destitution, and war.

The point of Claim 5, therefore, which should be self evident at a gathering such as ZSVS, is that if we are serious about classlessness, about economic equity, solidarity, diversity, self management, ecological balance, and socially oriented efficiency, and about broader positive aspirations for race, gender, political power, ecology, and peace, we must reject typically available economic institutions as violating our values. We must seek alternatives.

Claim 6: Seeking the classlessness advocated in Claim 2 and the proposed positive values advocated in Claim 3 and the broader social aims hinted at in Claim 4, and rejecting the capitalist and coordinator institutions dismissed in Claim 5, leaves us needing to advocate new economic institutions, including the defining structures of participatory economics which are self managing workers and consumers councils, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued work, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning.

For workers and consumers to influence decisions in proportion as they are affected by those decisions requires venues through which they can express and tally their preferences. We call these venues self managing councils, the first defining institutional component of participatory economics.

Equity requires equitable remuneration under workers and consumers own auspices and in accord with accurate valuations. It is parecon’s second defining institutional component. It has two primary purposes. On the one hand, ethically, workers are remunerated in compensation for the cost of their participation in time, intensity of effort, and harshness of conditions. On the other hand, economically, remunerated work must be socially useful, which ensures that workers and firms have incentives consistent with eliciting fulfilling output.

Self managed decisions require confident preparation, relevant capacity, and appropriate participation. Self managed decisions therefore require parecon’s third defining institutional feature, balanced job complexes, in which each actor has a fair share of empowering work so that no sector of actors monopolizes empowering work while others are left disempowered and unable to even arrive at much less manifest a will of their own. Balanced job complexes eliminate the monopoly on empowering labor that differentiates coordinators from workers. Balanced job complexes ensure that all workers are enabled by their work related conditions to participate in self management.

All the economic values of Claim 3 plus classlessness from Claim 2, together imply that allocation should be accomplished in accord with the freely expressed will of self managing workers and consumers and that it should be undertaken not to competitively aggrandize a ruling class against its subordinates but by cooperative and informed negotiation in which all people’s wills are proportionately actualized and in which operations, mindsets, and structures further the logic of self managing councils, balanced job complexes, and equitable remuneration rather than violating each. All this implies the fourth and last defining institutional feature of participatory economics, participatory planning.

Insofar as workers and consumers self managing councils, equitable remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued work, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning treat all actors economically identically they also counter any possible hierarchies among actors generated outside the economy, and insofar as they properly value ecological effects and convey decision making power to those affected, and insofar as writ large, internationally, they progressively eliminate inequality of wealth and power between nations, parecon seems well oriented to accommodate and even augment aims for other spheres of social life, though this is a determination which can only be fully evaluated when vision and strategy for those other domains exists in sufficient detail to permit evaluation of mutual compatibility.

Claim 7: Requirements for our own projects, organizations, and movements ought to include patiently incorporating the seeds of the future in the present, including self managed decision making, balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration, and cooperative negotiated planning, as well as central features of other dimensions of the new world we seek.

Creating institutions in the present that incorporate seeds of the future makes sense as an experiment to learn, as a model to inspire, as a way to do the best possible job now, for current fulfillment, for consistency, and to begin developing tomorrow’s infrastructure today.

Of course we need to keep in mind that we cannot have perfect future structures now, both because of surrounding pressures and because of our own emotional and behavioral baggage. But the fact that we need a sense of proportion about what future seeds we can experimentally harvest now is not the same as calling for entirely rejecting immediate harvesting. Just as movements should foreshadow a future that is feminist, poly cultural, and also politically free and just, lest they are internally compromised in their values, incapable of inspiring diverse constituencies or even prone to alienate them, incapable of overcoming cynicism, and weak in their comprehension even of current flaws and potentials, so should movements for the same reasons foreshadow a future that is classless, including incorporating council organization, balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration, and self management.

Put strategically, constructing movements that embody coordinator class assumptions, mannerisms, and aspirations would violate our aims and cripple our prospects just as horrifically as constructing movements that embody sexist, racist, or authoritarian assumptions, mannerisms, and aspirations cripples our prospects. Just as we do regarding visions for gender, race, culture more broadly, politics, ecology, and international relations, we should incorporate as best we can in our current economic projects, organizations, and movements, relations we desire for the future. Our movements should not slavishly reproduce the features of a class divided economy, any more than they should of racist, sexist, or authoritarian structures, but should instead patiently and carefully adopt the features of classlessness.

Claim 8: Seeking participatory economic institutions requires that we not only create in the present pareconish institutions as described by Claim 7 as well as in fuller descriptions elsewhere, but that we also fight for changes in capitalist institutions. Demands made against existing institutions ought to enhance people’s lives, advance the likelihood of further successful struggle, and advance the consciousness and organizational capacity to pursue those further aims. These provide the yardsticks for measuring success.

As valuable as experiments in creating pareconish (or gender, race, or politically inspired) organization in the present are, to only prioritize creating forward oriented experiments in our present activism would consign those who work in existing institutions to peripheral observer status as well as callously ignore pressing needs of the moment. The path to a better future includes creating experiments in its image in the present, yes, but it also includes a long march through existing institutions, battling for changes there that improve people’s lives today even as they auger and prepare for more changes tomorrow.

Changes in existing institutions which do not replace them down to their defining core are reforms, however the effort to win reforms need not accept that only reform is possible. On the contrary, efforts to win reforms can presume that we seek desired modest economic changes always and only as part of a process to win a new economy. Efforts to win reforms can choose demands, language, organization, and methods, all in accord not only with winning sought short term gains that improve people’s lives in the present, but also with increasing the inclination and capacity of people to seek still more victories in the future up to winning a new economic order. Rather than presuming system maintenance, battles around income, organization, decision-making, allocation, and other facets of economic life should be undertaken to enlarge and empower future-oriented desires and capacities. The rhetoric should advance comprehension of ultimate values. The organization should embody its norms and last to fight anew. The same should hold for economics as for other spheres of life, and vice versa. Win now not only to enjoy the benefits, but also to win more later. This is a non-reformist approach to winning reforms.

Claim 9: At some point in the future vast movements will have features such as those noted above as well as many others, of course, and will on the basis of their merits become vehicles toward winning and finally will also help compose the infrastructure of a new world. This will not happen, however, until people self consciously make it happen.

This last claim is, to me, a truism, but it is also arguably the most powerful point of all. Change will not come via an unfolding inevitable tendency in current relations that sweeps us, uncomprehending, into a better future. Changes will come, instead, only via self conscious actions by huge numbers of people bringing to bear their creativity and energy in a largely unified and coherent manner that will have internal debate, of course, but that will also have overarching shared aims and steadfast purpose.

It we travel into the future in our minds, and we imagine looking into the past, we will see a relatively brief period, at some point, during which people in one nation or another, or in many at once, form projects, organizations, and movements that thereafter persist to become centrally important vehicles for fighting for, constructing, and even finally merging into a new world.

Whether we look forward, or imagine looking back, we can reasonably ask what attributes such a lasting project, organization, or movement would incorporate. We can also reasonably act on our answers, once we feel we have them more or less in hand, to try to create such vehicles of change. Might we get these efforts all wrong? Yes, we might. But if we don’t try, then we have no chance of getting it right. And if we do get it wrong, we can take lessons from our mistakes, and try again.

The implication seems to be that building such vehicles not just of opposition but for self conscious creation of a new world must become our agenda. We should act without exaggerated images of instant success, of course, but we should also refuse to succumb to cynical or excessively patient delay.

Claim 10: When a capable and caring group agrees on Claims 1 through 9, it becomes incumbent on them to collectively seek wider agreement from a still larger group and to solidify their inspiring intellectual unity into a more practical organizational and programmatic unity, in accord with all the claims.

If not now, when?

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