New York City 2008 Anarchist Bookfair

[This talk was presented on a bookfair panel organized by NEFAC and has been slightly revised here for clarity.]


I’d like to thank the organizers of this panel. I agreed to do it, and I took the bus five hours to be here.  The reason why is that I’m honored to have a dialogue about parecon and anarchism because I believe that anarchism is an ideal form of social organization that we should strive for and it’s an opportunity to present some of my own thinking around these ideas.  It’s a bookfair and so I’d also like to take the opportunity to mention I have a book coming out mid-May with AK Press, Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21st Century, which addresses many of the topics we’ll be discussing here today, although in much more depth.


The description of the panel had posed questions which I’ll try to answer and along the way I’ll provide a thumbnail sketch of the participatory economic model. The questions were:


(1)  "What should anarchists think about parecon?"

(2)  "Is parecon consistent with anarchism or is it another version of a market economy?" And…

(3)  "Is the road to parecon reformist or revolutionary?"


So I’ll begin with the first question…



Question 1: "What should anarchists think about parecon?"


I’m actually daunted by the question, because in my mind there are many different kinds of anarchism. And for me to try and address every issue, that I imagine each different variant of anarchism could ask of parecon, would be impossible here. It’s also the case that no matter what I say, the twenty minute time allotment for my presentation is nowhere near enough time to be able to present my topic in much more than in a superficial way. So, regardless of what kind of anarchist you are, or are not, I encourage you to read the many essays, books, and debates about parecon, both the arguments in favor and against, and to decide for yourself, without basing your judgment solely on my presentation today.


However, without sidestepping the question, I do want to try responding to it. But at the same time I want to do so generally, and I also want to make connections with parecon and how I think it’s situated within the anarchist tradition. First, I want to step back and say that, for me, anarchism in its purest form is concerned with power relations. Traditionally these concerns have been with economy, god, and state. And of course today there are many variants on this, having developed for a long time, examining, critiquing, and resisting oppression in all its forms. It’s this latter tradition that I think parecon and more broadly the vision of participatory society evolves from—that tradition which looks at the totality of oppressions and seeks to provide alternative values, and alternative institutions that will facilitate emancipation in the defining spheres of social life.


The other tradition of anarchism I believe parecon stems from is the tradition which embraces vision. Within anarchism there is a tradition which rejects vision and there is a tradition which embraces vision. I believe that it’s wrong to reject vision. So I embrace it. I advocate it. I work with others to advocate it, develop it, and organize around it. Those who reject vision argue that it’s authoritarian and vanguardist—that there is something about the intrinsic qualities of vision itself that trump people’s creative pursuits and imagination. I think this is wrong. And I’m going to illustrate why with what I’m going to call "The Light Bulb Theory of Revolution." Although the "theory" is not really a theory; but is instead a joke. If you’ve ever been bored at night and googled "anarchist jokes" you’ll have found the same ones I did…


The joke, dealing specifically with those who reject vision, goes like this:


Q: How many anarchists does it take to replace a light bulb?


A: None. The light bulb replaces itself. Anarchists can only help facilitate the process.


What does this mean? Does it mean that if this room went pitch black right now—no lights—and there is a bulb beneath the socket, do we just sit here in the dark? Do we place a ladder next to the socket and hope the bulb hops its way into the socket? Do we shine a flashlight on the socket helping the bulb to find its way? Now imagine trying to replace the bulb and being called an authoritarian or vanguardist. This is all tongue-in-cheek of course, but it does illustrate a tradition within anarchism which rejects vision.



A Note on Consciousness


The real world is more complicated than theory or jokes. People are not light bulbs. People, among other things, have consciousness. People’s consciousness is formed by the institutions which define society, and our past and present experience in those institutions help form who we are today along with our hopes and expectations for tomorrow.


Next month is the 40th anniversary of the May 1968 Paris uprising. In one month ten million people went out in the streets and turned society upside down. The following month—lights out—everyone returned back to work, back to school, back to the factory, back to the campus, back to conforming to their everyday lives just as before the uprising. And if you’re familiar with this history you have probably seen the poster with a sketched herd of sheep titled "Return to Normal." We know that this is not a unique historical experience, where social upheavals occur then return to normal. We should want to transcend that normality. We do not want to return to normal. We should want to organize, advocate, and realize a social transformation, once and for all, and leave the old world behind.


But as June 1968 Paris illustrates—slipping back into conformity with old consciousness, institutions, and social relations—leaving the old world behind is complicated. So what do we need and what does the task require to be able to do this? I believe a big part of the answer is that we need widely shared values, shared understanding, and common vision of where we want to go. To do that we need to engage in a process to come to these common terms.


Malastesta has a quote I’ll paraphrase that I think illustrates the challenge presented to us. He says that in the future society we can’t predict when people will wake up, when they will go on vacation, or when they will cut their nails. However, those people who are concerned with the socialization and education of children and future generations, will all meet, discuss, and share their ideas for practices and institutions, and how they think education and socialization should happen. Then people will debate and experiment with those ideas and institutions. And those ideas and institutions that work best will prevail in the end. I think parecon and the vision of participatory society is firmly within this tradition and embraces Malatesta’s challenge.



Question 2: "Is parecon consistent with anarchism or is it another version of a market economy?"


I just outlined that I do think parecon is consistent with anarchism. So I’ll focus now instead on the question "is parecon another version of a market economy?" I’m going to say no. Parecon is not a market economy and in fact pareconists reject markets. But first, if you’re not already familiar with parecon, you probably want to know what it is so I’m going to spend a few minutes outlining the model in less detail than it requires, because I don’t have enough time. Parecon is an economic vision for society developed by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel about 15-20 years ago. It’s inspired very much by anarchist and libertarian socialist thought and practice. It’s an economy, so it’s designed to allocate good and services for the production and consumption of the material means of life. It’s a classless economy—which means it’s a revolutionary economy. And because we’re in that tradition which believes in transcending the totality of oppressions, this economy must exist, interact with, and is interdependent on, revolutionary institutions in other spheres of life—revolutionary kinship institutions, revolutionary political institutions, revolutionary cultural institutions, revolutionary….everything.


Now I can’t go into all the other spheres of social life, but the book coming out in May, Real Utopia, does cover these areas and is very relevant to the discussion here. So, regarding parecon, what are these institutions and how does parecon achieve classlessness. Well, first I’ll start with the values. The values are those that many social movements have fought for and sought to realize.


Self-management has been a distinctive attribute of anarchist theory and practice and in parecon means that each person or group has decision-making input in proportion to the degree that they are affected.


Solidarity means that we care about and express compassion for one another.


Equity means remuneration for effort and sacrifice (outlined below).


Diversity means there are a variety of lifestyle options for people to choose from.


Beyond the values, parecon eliminates private ownership of productive assets and replaces corporate divisions of labor with balanced job complexes. It replaces authoritarian decision-making with self-managed workers’ and consumers’ councils, remunerates work for effort and sacrifice and not property, power, or output, and replaces markets (or central planning) with decentralized participatory planning.


The concept of a Balanced Job Complex is very simple to understand, and there have been variants of it in Left history and ideology, specifically anarchism. Balanced Job Complexes are a reorganization of work. Going as far back as Bakunin, he critiqued the division of labor whereby work was divided between mental and manual labor. Bakunin also critiqued the conceptual oxymoron "dictatorship of the proletariat" and went so far as predict the emergence of a "Red Bureaucracy" in revolutionary Russia. Looking back Bakunin was right about a lot of it. Balanced Job Complexes deal with the division between mental and manual labor, but it also deals explicitly with the division of labor based on power and empowerment—between who are the order givers and who are the order takers—for the realization of a classless society.


Traditional Marxist class analysis, as stated by Marx himself, says society is divided into classes based on those who own productive property and those who don’t—meaning those who own the productive assets and those who sell their labor for mere sustenance and survival. This is a two-class analysis which Bakunin warned against. He presented an outline for a three-class analysis. Balanced Job Complexes is in this tradition of identifying a third class of managers and bureaucrats—that is not simply a sociological manifestation of these workplace relations—but an institutional role that is as structurally important as those who own productive assets and those who sell their labor.


In using class analysis to understand society, capitalists and workers are as equally important as this third class, which are called, using parecon’s framework, the "coordinator class," who work beneath the capitalists but above the workers.  Coordinators do mostly empowering conceptual work. Balanced Job Complexes seek to reorganize the workplace division of labor for power and empowerment so that everyone has an equal set of both empowering and disempowering tasks. This is unique to parecon, but there is more. In this future participatory society, work is not only balanced for desirability and empowerment within single workplaces, but across all workplaces throughout society. This is just one way that parecon, as a revolutionary economy, seeks to institutionalize classlessness.


The other way parecon seeks to abolish class division is through a remuneration norm of payment for effort and sacrifice. Remuneration for effort and sacrifice is different than what we’re normally used to when conceiving of alternatives to capitalism.  Traditionally the anti-capitalist remunerative norm has been "from contribution, according to need." But, if we’re seeking a classless society, we have to reject contribution based norms of remuneration. Payment for contribution is payment for output which could be the product of the genetic lottery, inheritance, luck of circumstance with better tools or co-workers, bargaining power, or brute force. Imagine picking apples from trees and being paid for output. If you were one of two people working for the same number of hours and the other person was paid more than you because they were able to pick more apples, but worked less hard because of bigger muscles, more stamina, better tools, or lower trees, than we would be operating on a contribution based norm of remuneration. However, we do not want to strive for this norm in a classless society because it produces and reproduces class division and class rule.


Remuneration according to need is desirable, and I think will be part of a classless society. However, we want an economy that remunerates fairly where people who work harder or under more onerous circumstances get more of the social product for consumption. Imagine runners racing around a track. The person who comes in first place with the lowest lap time compared to the other racers is not necessarily who we want to reward most. It could have been the person in third place, or in any position—whoever, as long as they had the most improved lap time compared to their own pervious lap times. Remuneration for effort and sacrifice abolishes differences based on luck, genetics, or other circumstantial factors out of our control. Parecon’s remuneration norm for effort and sacrifice, tempered by need—in cases of sickness, with age, etc.—is consistent with classlessness.


Another institutional feature of parecon which facilitates classlessness is self-managed worker and consumer councils which are federated throughout society. The participatory planning process that takes place between workers’ and consumers’ councils is not complicated, but really trying to walk through every step of the process will take more time than I have left. Basically, in the nutshell version, consumer councils propose what it is they want to consume and how much. Producer councils propose what it is they want to produce and how much. A plan is negotiated and made workable through a series of five or six iterative rounds until a feasible and desirable plan is voted on for the coming year.


At this point I would like to come back to the question "is parecon another version of a market economy?" making a distinction between decentralized participatory planning as proposed by the parecon model and markets generally. As mentioned already, parecon rejects markets, and it rejects the market’s institutional roles of buyer and seller. Buyers want to buy as much as they can for as cheap as they can, and sellers want to sell as little as they can for as much as they can—it’s "buy cheap, sell dear," fleece each other. If it would help, you would wrap your hands around the others throat till they give you what you want at the price you want. This is a generalized pattern in market society. Markets are like poison in a public water supply—one drop contaminates society. Parecon rejects markets and instead the people who advocate parecon want to implement decentralized participatory planning, which seeks to internalize all external effects—good and bad—of what would usually go un-noticed in a market economy. I am pressed for time, so I’ll only give this one example about the affects of a public bad that is mostly lost in markets. The example takes place at a car dealership where the buyer and seller of the car are the only two involved in the transaction even though the rest of society is affected by carbon emissions released into the atmosphere by the car. The decentralized participatory planning process of parecon seeks to give all those affected proportional say in economic decision-making, the result of which would make cars like the one in our example much more expensive to consume than they are today.


So now I would like to move on to the final question…


Question 3: "Is the road to parecon revolutionary or reformist?"


Well, in fact there has been material addressing this question in some length, but again, time limits me here. Michael Albert wrote a book Moving Forward: Program for a Participatory Economy where he proposes shortening the workday, shortening the workweek, raising wages, raising taxes on the rich—reforms very much within the tradition of labor strategies and struggles, aimed at realizing this revolutionary economy. Robin Hahnel’s book Economic Justice and Democracy touches on the many real world organizing efforts and institutions already taking place in creating what has been a traditional anarchist strategic principle of  "building the seeds of the future society in the present." Tom Wetzel has written about building working class movements and mass organizations on the road to parecon. And in my book Real Utopia, there is a whole chapter on strategy with many proposals, but one specifically by Brian Dominick where he outlines a possible dual power strategy addressing transformation of already existing institutions, but also how counter institutions could organize to defend these alternative institutions, as well as considering the role of the state, political parties, and economic justice movements. The point I want to make here, is that if we’re against shortening the workday, if we’re against increasing wages, if we’re against these reforms, than basically we’re giving up on reforms as a plausible solution to moving forward and turning our backs on those people who need those gains. I’ve been crunched for time, but the idea behind all these reforms and strategies is that they should be done in such a way that does not replicate the oppressive institutions and structures we are trying to transcend—that we should approach these strategies with an understanding of what we want so as not to produce and reproduce racism, classism, sexism, and authoritarianism within our movements. And that we do all this with an understanding that the process of institutional change will also be a process of changing ourselves; and that we should want to do all this in a way which seeks to make gains giving our movements ever greater control over the institutions that affect us, in the process of transformation, and we seek to win even larger gains until it is clear we are the victors and we can continue the process of self-consciously organizing the new society.


Thank you.



Chris Spannos is staff with Z. He’s editor of Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21st Century, published by AK Press and coming out next month.

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