Parecon and Art


Excerpted from the Zed Book – Realizing Hope



One could easily anticipate that people who own factories and have great wealth would have a negative initial–and perhaps long term–reaction to the classlessness of participatory economics. Factory owners have, after all, benefited from capitalism’s most aggressive inequalities and come to feel that they personally deserve their great wealth and power rather than that they hold it by virtue of institutional economic injustice. When capitalists view the personal or collective mirror they typically do not recoil in horror due to seeing a beneficiary of monopolizing ownership of productive assets, but instead they preen and celebrate due to seeing a superior breed of person deserving great influence and luxury for his or her socially valuable entrepreneurship.


Similarly, those who are currently in the coordinator class of lawyers, doctors, engineers, and such, or who even aspire to being in it, will, in many instances, predictably be at least initially and sometimes enduringly hostile to parecon. They typically feel they are smarter and wiser, more capable and more enterprising then workers below, rather than that they are the beneficiaries of a relative monopoly on training and empowering conditions and a morally bankrupt criteria of reward and decision making.


When coordinator class members look in the personal or collective mirror, in other words, they typically do not see a beneficiary of monopolizing economic roles and circumstances of empowerment, but they see a superior breed deserving disproportionate luxury and influence for its intelligence and skills and even its greater capacity to enjoy a rich and varied life.


Oddly, it turns out there is another group that seems to have a more or less reflexive initial tendency to reject parecon–artists. In my experience, at least, this sector worries greatly on hearing about parecon’s features and tends to lash out against it without even considering possible gains for others or even, for that matter, for themselves. Something deep seems to be threatened, and they respond with vigor.


So what is the situation of art and artists vis a vis the economy? Can/will a participatory economy be advantageous for artists and art, or will it reduce the lives of artistic practitioners and also delimit their product?


Put in reverse, would having an ideal environment for people to partake of artistic labors consistent with others having comparable conditions and opportunities impose needs and implications on the rest of economics that a parecon could not abide?


It seems that artists’ reactions to parecon are like those of coordinator class members more generally, but with a twist. Artists don’t think all lawyers, doctors, engineers, and so on are like them. They think, instead, that there is something uniquely grand and great about art that distinguishes artists from the rest of society’s actors. And they fear, at least on first hearing, that parecon will interfere with their endeavors.


What is this special-ness? Creativity, they say. We create. We bring into existence. We dredge from nothing something. And, more, we not only conceive what other don’t and nurture it into existence, we do this in advance of others, only to their later benefit. Our work takes time to even understand much less appreciate.


And so what about participatory economics worries artists?


Partly it is that artists will have to do balanced job complexes. And partly it is that artists will have to operate in the participatory planning system, which means that others will have an impact on whether they can do their preferred activities or not.


So how will art transpire in a parecon, and what will be the implications for artists and their creations of having to partake of a balanced job complex and the planning process? And, finally, is there anything special about their worries?


Artistic labor in a parecon–painting, sculpting, designing, writing, filming, directing, performing, dancing, conducting, etc.–will be subject to the same structural impositions as all other labor in a parecon. There will be workplaces for different types of product, workers councils of those involved in the production, consumers who benefit from the product, self managed decision making, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning of allocation.


In capitalism the artist of one kind or another attempts to get work which means appealing to a source of financing. Ultimately this will be property owners–capitalists–whether it is when they themselves finance movies and plays, or when their publishing houses or foundations produce books or support a public symphony, or whatever else.


The owners or administrators will hire the artist if they think there is profit to be made off the artists’ labors, or, in some quite rare cases, out of literally liking the product and being willing to subsidize it regardless of losses to be incurred. The artist’s income will depend on his or her bargaining power, which will be affected by many variables, including the popularity of the output, the artist’s relative monopoly on the talents that go into its creation, etc.


What all this leads to in capitalist economies is that most artistic labor goes to selling commodities for owners or sometimes into designing or prettifying their habitats. More prose and poetry is written for jingles, manuals, and ads than for audiences reading novels. More pictures are painted, photos taken, films created, and sculptures carved for purposes of sales to confer profit than for edifying or inspiring or uplifting audiences much less expressing the true desires and perceptions or artists.


What about in a participatory economy, then? What would be the difference for artists and art?


First a worker producing art of one sort or another will work with a workers council, as do all other workers. He or she will get hired like other workers, be remunerated like other workers, have a balanced job complex like other workers, and influence decisions like other workers, meaning he or she will do all this through workers and consumers councils addressing production and consumption and also allocation via participatory planning.


This means the artist has to convince other artists that he or she is a worthy worker in the field to get a job. The criterion is producing desirable art. This would seem like a gigantic improvement from having to convince a sponsor or owner with the criterion being profitability to him or her.


It also means the artist’s income will reflect the effort and sacrifice expended in socially valued labor, which is just but also, thought less than a few artists earn under capitalism, likely considerably more than most earn–a moral improvement in every case in overcoming inequity, and even overwhelmingly often a material improvement for the individual artist.


It also means the artist will have a combined job complex that is of average empowerment effect. Artists typically take considerable responsibility for all sides of their activity in any event, cleaning up for themselves, etc. As to how much other work they would wind up incorporating in their overall job complex, I doubt we can say now. But there is nothing special or unique in all this due to it being artists we are discussing as compared to any other producers. The change from corporate divisions of labor to balanced job complexes is not only better in the large, in eliminating class division and rule, but for all but a very few elite artists, it would likely mean considerably more time doing the type of art they most desire to do, even if there is, predictably, a shorter work week and time going to other responsibilities as well.


But what about influence over the artistic product? And what about the art that emerges?


The artist hearing about parecon starts to worry–will others be telling me what to paint, carve, write, etc.? And will the population at large be deciding whether my art is worthy or not, via the participatory allocation process?


Artists as a group are like all workers’ councils. They don’t get workplace inputs, electricity, equipment, clay, paint, and so on, unless their workplace is producing consonant with social needs. But within that constraint, again like other workers, artists self-manage their own activity.


The population will negotiate with artists how much of society’s overall social productive potential should go to art, given what art seems to yield for people’s lives and society and given artists’ inclinations regarding their labors. But, once this is established, it is workers councils in art workplaces that hire and also dismiss artists, for being worthy and working appropriately.


So it is your fellow artists that you must convince of the efficacy of your activities. Might you fail to do so? Yes. But surely it will be easier and less alienating to convince fellow artists, who have nothing to lose and everything to gain by hiring fine artists, your work is worthy, than to convince an owner. And if you do fail, does it mean you can do nothing about it? No. You can try another artists’ council or you can produce on your own time and thereby demonstrate the validity of your proposals pending another application.


The idea that the population will be unable to see that there is merit in artistic work that escapes the bounds of current preferences and that diversifies the bounty of product and exploration, is as elitist and unwarranted as the idea that the population won’t support science, or engineering, or innovation in all other walks of life. And the idea that for top current artists to have to do a balanced job complex will take away from society’s total art product is no less elitist than the idea that the 80% of the population currently denied means and opportunity to develop its potentials could not generate sufficient scientific or medical or athletic or other product to replace anything that might not get generated due to some scientist or doctor or athlete or other talented person having to sweep up, etc.


In fact the claim is more ridiculous for artists than for the others on two counts. First, artists generally sweep up quite a lot now, even top ones, so not much of their product is lost by having current artists do a balanced job complex. And second, more to the point, most people doing artistically creative work are not, in fact, now generating worthy art but, instead, packaging, advertising, etc., all of which distraction from sensible and worthy utilization of their talents is reduced to near nil in a desirable economy like parecon.


So the bottom line is that parecon does to and for art what it does to and for other pursuits. It removes class differences. It guarantees that social assets are used in accord with social desires. It inserts self managing methods, remunerates justly, and makes the criteria of decision making meeting needs and fulfilling potentials.  And it removes elitism while retaining quality and standards.


For purposes of rounding out this admittedly brief discussion, here are three questions put to parecon explicitly by artists, and short answers. It is a bit redundant of what is above, but the question/answer format may help clarity.


(1) Wouldn’t parecon limit individual artistic creativity by deciding what art to produce by participatory planning, as if by referendum or committee?


My reply is, does the questioner think this because artists, like producers of vehicles, will get resources to work with (outputs of other people’s efforts) and in turn be allotted income for their work only insofar as their output is desired in the economy?


I don’t see why these accurate perceptions lead to the worry.


If the questioner is worried that it would be within the purview of society to decree that some type artistic innovation is unwanted or unlikely to be successful and that resources shouldn’t be given over to it–yes, that is true for art as it is also true for innovation in, say, how to build better bicycles or make better ladders, or fly to Mars. But the assumption that in a parecon the population would not want musical and artistic innovation pursued in the artist’s own manner by those with talents and creativity, seems to me very dubious. I should think the opposite would be true, overwhelmingly.


What people currently like would be part of the issue in parecon–for sure. A parecon isn’t going to produce massive amounts of avant garde books and disks and films for audiences that don’t exist. But that isn’t the whole of good policy in this regard, of course. For one thing, smaller groups can like things a lot, making them very worthwhile even though not widely appreciated. It is a small group that likes advanced physics texts or even heart transplants, but that doesn’t mean society shouldn’t produce these.


But also, at any moment in time, much of what is pursued–not only in art, but in many dimensions of life such as science, engineering, product design, etc.–is not yet appreciated beyond those who are trying to explore it and maybe not even entirely by them.


Art, despite the contrary intuitions of many artists, is not special in this respect. There is need for exploration and elaboration in art, music, and ideas and information and innovation more generally, all of which moves out beyond current popular taste. But there is nothing about parecon that precludes or even impedes this exploration relative to any other model I am aware of, much less relative to capitalism…quite the contrary.


Imagine a workplace for musicians. Society respects this workplace and includes it as part of the economy because society values music, including innovation. To work at this institution (and in different parecons we can imagine different approaches to all such issues) one has to be hired which likely entails demonstrating certain knowledge, talent, etc. The institution’s budget is allocated internally by its members to various activities and therefore certainly not only to what a mass audience outside already likes. It really isn’t much different in these respects than a workplace that is investigating new products,.


(2) But aren’t artists with such public controls not really artists anymore?


This notion that an artist is some special unique creature with special rights eludes me. It is a claim made by all intellectual workers who are in or wanting to be in the coordinator class–each seeing it as valid for themselves but not as equally valid for others, In fact, however, the claim is true for all and true for none, depending on what it means.


There is a difference, that is, between being controlled by an external public or other authority, what artists and others reasonably fear, and being part of a society and operating in accord with its norms and thus having a say over outcomes in proportion as they affect one, but not more than that.


Parecon gives everyone in the economy self managing influence over economic outcomes, and this includes people who do science, engineering, administration, construction, serving, and also art as a part of their balanced job complex, each like all the rest. The artist has to function in society, impacted by it, but not, on that account, without his or her own wherewithal.


(3) The whole idea of being an artist seems contrary to the notion of producing “popular” art for mass appeal. What happens to an artist who makes unappealing art in Parecon?


Suppose I happen to like some kind of weird arrangement of items in my living room, and I like the setup changed daily, and it takes me an hour each day to do it, and it is hard work. Should I be able to earn my living in part for doing that? It has no value for anyone else whatsoever…let’s say.


I think not. I shouldn’t be forbidden from doing it, of course. But it is my private pursuit and it is more consumption than it is production, and it isn’t worthy of being called part of a job complex, I should think. Now this isn’t true by definition in a parecon—that is, a parecon could decide otherwise for reasons I don’t yet or maybe would never personally agree with. A particular parecon’s participants, contrary to my expectations, could actually allow and incorporate this type activity as work, though I doubt one ever would.


Something similar happens for art, music, and also engineering, science, athletics and really all pursuits. Insofar as society is going to allocate income to those doing some activity, it is going to want that activity to “count” as work, which means that overall, on average, it has socially beneficial outcomes that extend beyond those involved in the activity. (There may be lots of misses on the road to some hits, and benefit may have many meanings…but still…)


So if I want to pursue some science, or engineering, or music, or writing, or building, or landscaping, or architecting, or constructing, or teaching, or ball playing, or cooking, or whatever, and I want this activity to be part of my balanced job complex, the activity has to be regarded by the economy as worthy in what it generates for others.


But how does the economy determine worthiness? Most likely, for art as with engineering, etc., it will do so by budgeting whole institutions that will in turn incorporate people who do this type work, and will then largely take the employees’ collective view as to the worthiness of pursuits proposed to be undertaken.


Could it be that some genius will propose to a music workplace or an art workplace or a research center, pursuits that others in the field wrongly feel deserve no time, energy, and resources? It could happen, of course. Einstein’s PhD submission was initially rejected. But parecon is far less vulnerable to such problems than is capitalism, say, due to parecon’s having removed profit and power differentials from the motivations of actors.


Ignorance may still have an impact, however, or just outright error. No system can be immune from that. But, precisely because every system is vulnerable to such error, one can at least roughly account for the likely distribution of ignorance and try to guard against it having ill effects–which is just what elevating the value “diversity” to such a prime position as parecon does is meant to help achieve.


As a last point, suppose we come at the art and parecon problem in the opposite direction and ask what does having the ideal system for artists demand of an economy?


Of course the problem is arriving at what we mean by “ideal system for artists.” Some might think the phrase is fulfilled if the system simply lets artists do whatever they want, giving them anything they want, both to do their art, and to enjoy and explore existence as well.


But if we instead say that artists should have what will benefit their lives and their art consistent with all other people equally having what will benefit their lives and their preferred ways of expressing their capacities–then, interestingly, it seems that pareconish values arise quite directly, and in turn so do pareconish institutions.


Surely artists need to control their endeavors and their interactions in the broader world which provides fuel for their insights and communications. But to have this option consistently with others having it too, means having self managing say.


For the artist to be appreciated and to have a wide range of choice and for there to be high standards and access to needed tools and conditions–all, again, consistent with others having the same benefits and costs regarding their pursuits–militates for remuneration for effort and sacrifice and balanced job complexes.


The point is, artists are people. Economically they produce and they consume. What any given artist produces and what he or she does to produce it is different from what others in society do, and from other artists do, as well. But what everyone does is different from what everyone else does. Artists conceive and originate–but so do all other social actors in the economy, at least to some degree, and some do it very much as in people coming up with product innovations, new techniques, new analyses in changing contexts, new basic theory, and so on. Artists are worthy and inspirational and valuable. They are not unique in these respects, either, however.


So, in sum, parecon creates conditions conducive to society benefiting from artistic talent and conducive to capable artists expressing themselves as they choose. More, parecon does all this consistently with economic equity and justice for the artists but also equally for all other workers and consumers. Parecon is an art friendly, even an artistic economy.

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