Before responding to the question posed by this conference, “What social and political structures and events will take us beyond neo-liberalism?,” I’d like to make a couple introductory comments which will explain my approach.
First, the question, and the title of this conference, presumes that we all agree that neo-liberalism needs to be transcended. So I will not spend time discussing the history of neo-liberalism, nor will I examine what’s wrong with it, its ideology, its institutions, or its theoretical framework. On these subjects you can find a plethora of books, magazines, university courses, think tanks and activist groups all dedicated to what’s wrong with neo-liberalism. However, I will attempt to succinctly define neo-liberalism and I’ll make comments about its nature only in passing. Beyond that I adopt the presumption of the question, that for various reasons we’re all opposed to neo-liberalism.
Second, much less talked about than what’s wrong with neo-liberalism, is vision, and how our vision for the future, or lack of it, informs our strategies and organizing today. Put within the framework of the question, I propose that our vision informs what social and political structures our movements adopt to get beyond neo-liberalism. As for the second part of the question, the events needed for our movements progress, I argue that, beyond natural disasters and unforeseen events, that attempts at social change within our control need to be self-conscious and that these efforts, or self-consciously organized events, fall broadly into two separate categories, the categories of reform and revolution. I’ll define these concepts and outline our participatory economic vision and its strategic implications later in this talk. But, first I’ll address neo-liberalism.
Let me briefly define neo-liberalism as an ideology which claims economic activity is best left to the dictates of the free market. This ideology is upheld by dominant international economic institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). This ideology is implemented and carried out by economic rules and regulations such as “structural adjustment programs”, the “North American Free Trade Agreement” (NAFTA), the “Free Trade Area of the America’s” (FTAA), among numerous others. The declared rationale for these institutions and policies is that free trade will better the future for all people of the world; especially those living in poverty. Of course, we’ve all come to this “Envisioning Post-neoliberalism” conference, so I presume we all have an idea of what’s wrong with this rational.
Neo-liberalism, as an ideology, is a dream dreamt by elite capitalists and has its feet rooted in the ground of a more concrete economic reality – the system of capitalism. Neo-liberal ideologues dream of un-fettered competition, un-fettered greed and un-fettered riches all flowing from un-fettered markets, granting authority to corporate property rights and capital over human rights and environmental protections. Or, put another way, neo-liberalism functions as an ideological cover for the promotion of capitalist interests.
Capitalism is not an ideology, but it’s a very real and easily definable system. Capitalism is comprised of private ownership of productive assets, workplace corporate hierarchies, markets for allocation of goods for production and consumption, and remuneration schemes based on property ownership, luck of inheritance, life circumstance, the genetic lottery or brute force. It’s this very real economic system which gives rise to neo-liberalism.
We all agree with the premise of this conference: we oppose and want to transcend neo-liberalism – its ideology, its institutions and its outcomes. We want to alleviate the vast disparities of wealth and power across the globe. But I also want to argue, that to aim beyond neo-liberalism is simply not enough. It’s not enough if we want a world that’s equitable, not enough if we want a world that’s environmentally sustainable, it’s not enough if we want a world that’s diverse, it’s not enough if we want a world with compassion and solidarity and it’s still not enough if we want a world where people have democratic decision making input in proportion to how they are affected.
The difference between fighting for a world beyond neo-liberalism and fighting for a world beyond capitalism is the difference between fighting for reform and fighting for revolution. These two different approaches taken separately have drastically different strategic consequences for our movement’s struggle. Taken separately they are limited. But taken together they can mean successful strategy for social change. I’ll touch on these strategic differences more in a momentâ€¦
But first, let’s consider reforms. Reforms to improve the welfare of those who suffer today, say by taxing the rich, have the potential to take us beyond neo- liberalism. But economic reform alone falls short of addressing the underlying structures of the economic system and its institutions. This is not revolution. Going further, reforms without considering alternatives to the underlying structure don’t question the dominant economic institutions of our society. They assume these structures are a natural part of life, an inevitable outcome of evolution, or as equally accepted and unquestioned as the law of gravity. Acceptance of this status quo would be obscene in another time and place. An example would be like trying to improve the lives of serfs under feudalism without addressing the structure and institutions of feudalism. It would be like trying to win gains for slaves without ever attempting to abolish the system of slavery. This does not mean that reforms on their own are antithetical to revolution. It just means that reforms need to be consciously taken as part of a movement building strategy seeking both to improve people’s lives today, but also for revolution tomorrow.
Now let’s look at revolution. Revolution is the accumulation of victories won by our movements leading to fundamental changes in societies key defining institutions. The struggles to achieve and implement these changes are also part of the process. This process builds our skills and shapes our characters. It empowers and inspires us to seek more gains. This process of building the new institutions and new social relations is informed by our vision and prepares us for the new society that we set out to fight for.
We’ve talked about what reforms are. And, we’ve talked about what revolution is. Now, I’d like to point out the necessity of revolution. As pointed to earlier, reforms on their own fail to address the underlying structures of the economic system and its institutions. Institutions provide context for interrelated roles and relationships for usual behaviours and expected outcomes. Reforms to lessen the gap between rich and poor, for more participation in the democratic process and for more workplace democracy will come head to head with the institutions, social relations, behaviours and outcomes produced by capitalism; by the top down decision making of corporate hierarchies, by fleecing each other as buyers and sellers in the market and by capitalist and coordinator control of privately owned productive assets. Reforms can make improvements in capitalism yes, but whatever social advances we’ve won will always be challenged, threatened and rolled back by those who benefit from capitalism; that is, unless fundamental changes in capitalism’s underlying structure are made. Without addressing these structures we’re setting ourselves and others up for a perpetual cycle of struggle, never with the ambition or declared goal to win. Revolution is necessary to win. Without revolution, the very best we can achieve is a variation on social democracy, always struggling to prop it up, always defending hard fought gains. At their finest, reforms on their own deliver a watered down version of economic justice and democracy. At worst, without revolution and without clear vision of what we want, we may not make it to the 22nd Century — the time horizon proposed by this conference.
For those of us seeking to go beyond neo-liberalism, for those of us seeking to transcend a weak conception of economic justice and democracy, for those of us seeking to ward off perpetual cycles of social advances and social rollbacks, for those of us seeking to avoid environmental collapse or nuclear holocaust, we look for another economic vision. The Vancouver Parecon Collective advocates the model of a participatory economy. We propose reforms and revolution leading to fundamental transformation in the institutions that make capitalism. This means replacing private ownership of productive assets with social ownership. It means nested worker and consumer council’s and balanced job complexes rather than corporate hierarchies. It means remuneration for effort and sacrifice instead of property, power, luck or output. It means decentralized participatory planning instead of markets. And finally, this also means self- management rather than class rule. And, we propose to do this before the 22nd Century. We propose to organize now, to achieve social change in this century and in our lifetime.
Now, I’d like to consider the strategic implications of our participatory economic vision. The details may vary from time and place, but there are a few general insights.
Broadly, a participatory economic vision seeks solidarity, self-management, equity and diversity. That means that people organizing with a parecon orientation will seek to create movements of solidarity that show compassion, concern and support for struggles against sexism, homo-phobia, racism and exploitation of workers and the environment. It will support internationalist struggles against war and corporate globalization and for national self- determination. A parecon movement is self-managing and participatory meaning it’s opposed to class rule within our movements by vanguards, the coordinator class, or capitalists. We seek a balanced division of labour within our movement building where everyone has decision making input in proportion to how they’re affected. A parecon based movement seeks equity. We want to lessen the gap between rich and poor. But we also want to recognize the efforts and sacrifices of our movement’s participants, making activist efforts sustainable and rewarding, enabling long-term commitment and participation. And a parecon movement embraces diversity of sexualities, genders, races, religions and life styles.
Specifically, a parecon strategy will emphasize winning a series of reforms that move us toward parecon institutions and consciousness. These reforms can range from winning redistributive taxes, changes in work relations; especially in the division of labor, more participation in budgeting and workplace decision making, more access to information, and control over collective consumption. A parecon strategy will seek reforms complimentary to the building of worker and consumer councils. It will pursue reforms that arouse and empower ever wider circles of dedicated activists. Advances will be sought in ways that expand desires rather than delimit them. A parecon strategy will build activist organizations, allegiances, and empowerment, all headed toward new defining institutions.
So I’ll end by restating my answer to this forums’ question. Our vision informs what social and political structures our movements adopt to get beyond neo- liberalism. And the events needed for this forward momentum are organized by a self-conscious movement. These ‘events’ fall into the categories of reforms and revolution. Revolution is needed to take us not only beyond neo-liberalism, but beyond capitalism. I hope you’ll consider the participatory economic model and its strategic implications. If you want to take it a step further to get involved and help organize please contact us. Our web site is: vanparecon.resist.ca and our email address is: [email protected]
Chris Spannos is member of the Vancouver Participatory Economics Collective. This essay is a slightly amended version of a talk given at the “Canada22: Envisioning Post-Neoliberalism” conference on April 22. Chris volunteers for ZNet and produces radical current affairs radio with the Redeye Collective (http://www.coopradio.org/redeye) at Vancouver Coop Radio, CFRO. Chris is a social service worker on a multi-diagnosis outreach team in Vancouver’s down town east side. His writings, reviews and interviews have appeared in ZNet, ZMag, Electronic Iraq, Dollars and Sense, Seven Oaks, The NewStandard, Vancouver Cooperative Radio, the CBC and others.