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Hannover Talk


Introduction

First, I’d like to thank everyone here and especially the organizers for inviting me. It is a great honor and I hope I can offer something useful.

I generally prefer spontaneous and interactive exchanges, both as a speaker and when attending events. For that reason, I will try to keep this talk, which is prepared in advance to help with translation, and which I therefore have to deliver from a script, pretty short.

 

So to begin…back when I was in college, nearly forty years ago, I was in our leftist national student organization, called Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS.

Our chapter of SDS, at MIT where I was a student, was called RL SDS. The RL stood for Rosa Luxembourg, the great German revolutionary.

Rosa Luxembourg once said, “you lose, you lose, you lose, you win.” She meant, I believe, that even major setbacks are part of a process of historic social change.

Rosa Luxembourg gave her life fighting for change but when we win, finally, so will Rosa.

But win what?

 

I was asked in this talk to situate and introduce the German edition of a book I have written titled Parecon: Life After Capitalism. That will therefore be my focus, at least until we get to the discussion period.

The word “Parecon” in the title of the book is an abbreviation for Participatory Economics.

The phrase “Participatory Economics” is in turn the name for a vision of how to conduct economic life very differently than under capitalism.

It turns out, therefore, that I have been asked to situate and summarize for you this new economic vision called parecon.

 

Origins

First we can consider parecon’s origins.

Parecon owes its most distant roots to the first working people who tried to improve their conditions.

Going way back, I am told the first labor strike was in Egypt, about 4,000 years ago.

The Pharaoh then – and as I heard the story this was the only female who was ever a Pharaoh – decided that beyond working six days and being given sufficient pay for food, which was the workers’ usual situation, it might be nice to require them to work for all seven days with no pay at all. Perhaps women Pharaohs had to be especially Pharaonic!

Can you imagine building a tomb, in the desert, cutting and lugging massive rocks in the deadly sun, seven days a week, for zero pay? How long before death?

This lady Pharaoh might not have been very smart, but you have to admit it was a natural progression. If you can maintain nearly murderous conditions, why not try maintaining actually murderous conditions?

I was told the decision to revoke the slaves’ day off and withhold their food supplies provoked the first labor strike. 

 

Parecon stems from that strike and from every effort by working people, and by consumers too, to improve their conditions and incomes.

More recently, revolutionary marxists like Antonio Gramsci from Italy, Rosa Luxembourg from here in Germany, and Anton Pannekoek from the Netherlands – and anarchists such as Mikhail Bakunin from Russia and Rudolf Rocker again from Germany, have expanded our insights into what it might mean for people to contribute sensibly to and share justly in society’s product. These revolutionaries and many others began to conceptualize people making economic choices cooperatively.

Movements with similar inclinations have included the left opposition to the Bolsheviks in Russia, the Spanish Anarchists, the early Solidarity movement in Poland, the mass upsurges in Argentina, and perhaps we can hope also the current Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela.

 

But what were more immediate factors pushed my co-author Robin Hahnel and I toward conceptualizing parecon?

Needing Vision

First, back in the 1960s, we continually encountered people asking, what do you want? What is your alternative?

At first we were put off by this question. We thought it was raised to rationalize ignoring current injustice.

Why did we need to know an economic replacement for capitalism to oppose the war in Vietnam?

Why did we need to know how our future economy would operate to oppose corporations crushing workers?

In time, however, we decided the questions were often fair and sincere. We saw that people wouldn’t fight for change without knowing what the change would be.

So the first factor contributing directly to parecon being born was our seeing the importance of having a compelling vision that could overcome cynicism.

When Britain’s Margaret Thatcher gleefully intoned that there was no alternative she meant there was no escape from capitalism no matter how bad capitalism might be.

Thatcher knew what she was saying. We realized we needed to overcome the fatalistic belief she was celebrating.

 

Wanting Real Classlessness

A second factor fostering parecon occurred due to a woman named Barbara Ehrenreich and her then husband John publishing an essay which helped us arrive at a new view about classes.

Their essay, later published in a fine book called Between Labor and Capital, was about people in modern day capitalism who reside between labor and capital.

This middle group that the Ehrenreichs highlighted, didn’t have property, and therefore weren’t capitalists. But this group did have considerable control over their own lives and the lives of workers below and also had higher income and more status than workers. They apparently weren’t workers either.

To make a long story short, my co-author Robin Hahnel and I saw in Ehrenreich’s work a critical insight for understanding existing economic systems as well as for seeking a new one.

We named the third class between labor and capital, coordinators.

We saw that this coordinator class monopolized control over daily decision making and especially over empowering economic circumstances. We realized that in the absence of capitalists, it could become a ruling class.

In our view this wasn’t a bureaucratic problem. It wasn’t a political problem. This class was produced and could be elevated to ruling power by economic institutions.

Of course having a classless economy required eliminating the economic basis for capitalists to exist and rule. We would have to get rid of private ownership of workplaces in any good economy we advocated.

But beyond that, the new class analysis convinced us that we would also have to eliminate the economic basis for coordinators to exist and rule.

 

Hating Markets

A third big factor in the emergence of Parecon, I think, was Robin’s and my antipathy to markets.

We hated markets. But why did we hate them? What was it about markets that caused us to want them entirely gone?

The need to explain what we despised about markets forced Robin and I to examine allocation generally and markets specifically. We had to fully uncover how market role structures compelled anti social behavior and greed. We had to discern how markets distorted preferences. We had to see how markets established false prices that mis-accounted the ecology. We had to discover how markets produced coordinator class rule when capitalists were absent.

In the process of all that, Robin and I became market abolitionists. We knew markets were going to be around for awhile, of course. But that didn’t cause us to temper our rejection of them.

 

The SEP Experience

A fourth big factor in the emergence of parecon was my time working at a left publishing house called South End Press, or SEP for short.

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