Parecon and Athletics

This essays is excerpted from the Zed Press book, Realizing Hope


By this point, talking about parecon’s implications for athletics and athletes ought to be relatively easy. It is barely different than for science, art, and journalism. There is, however, one interesting new angle to address: the issue of competition. 


First, as with other realms of human endeavor, parecon ensures that those who do athletic activity as part of their balanced work responsibilities will be remunerated for their effort and sacrifice and have balanced job complexes and self-managing work situations. 


What the empowerment ratio of playing tennis as a part of one’s parecon work, or golf, running, chess, or soccer might turn out to be, we can only guess. But various pareconish sports industries will have job complexes that are internally balanced among responsibilities such as playing, training, coaching, traveling, maintaining the fields and stadiums, transporting, cleaning, medically maintaining athletes, taking tickets, and so on and so forth, and then also between their broad industry and the rest of the economy. 


Likewise the inputs and outputs of athletic industries will be cooperatively negotiated in the planning process by workers councils in industries that provide bats and balls, food, bandages, bikes, and other inputs, by those that provide sports events and opportunities, and by consumer’s councils expressing their preferences for athletic consumption.


It might be interesting to ask how a sports team will be redefined, including how coaching will be handled and tasks distributed and motivated. But just as it is beyond current capacities to delve deeply into such matters for symphony orchestras, movie actors and crews, writers and directors, or, for that matter, for truck drivers, cooks, or metal workers, so too it is beyond our capacities for athletes and others associated with delivering athletic performances.


We can say a bit more about athletic remuneration, however, and it is revealing to do so. And after that we can address a much broader question that may be troubling some readers: would athletics even exist as a part of a parecon as something that is remunerated and consumed? Would bicycle riding exists only as an enjoyable hobby and pastime, but not as the Tour de France with remuneration? Would people play chess with friends, but not in tournaments as part of their income-earning work? Would there be hobbyist leagues for hockey and cricket, football and soccer, tennis and golf, chess and bridge, bowling and car racing, maintained by people earning for their labors, but without people doing such sports activity itself for pay?


Assuming for now that people continue to earn income for playing sports, remuneration will be for effort and sacrifice, of course. But what does that mean in this context? 


Consider a marathon race. Current total prize money might be two million dollars. If so, in capitalism the first place winner might win four hundred thousand, second place two hundred and fifty thousand, third place one hundred thousand, fourth place fifty thousand, and the remaining two hundred thousand dollars might be awarded in steadily diminishing increments to the next thirty or forty finishers, with another thousand or more finishers earning nothing for their efforts. 


If we consider, instead, the whole baseball, golf, soccer, track and field, bowling, car racing, or chess industry, each rewards its players similarly over the course of a year, with participants going from tremendous earnings at the top performance levels down to near zero or even below zero (since many athletes pay their own fees, transport, etc.) for a huge majority of lower performance levels. What changes about this picture in a parecon?


Consider the marathon again. In a parecon, marathon remuneration isn’t for where you finish in the race, but for the effort and sacrifice you expend in socially valued labor. If society values your sport and its products enough to warrant its being a part of the socially planned economy, then as a participant (whether your main activity is athletic, organizational, maintenance, medical, or whatever), you will get remunerated for the duration of your socially valued work, for the intensity of your efforts, and for your work’s onerousness above or below the social average, but not for output – such as where you finish in a race.


Indeed, suppose you are, among your other responsibilities, a runner. Suppose you come in first, or fifth, or one hundred and fiftieth (just how slow a runner can be and still be considered a producer of a valued output is a matter that will be determined by sports councils in their hiring practices and by participatory planning in establishing what is sought by audiences, just as with baseball, hockey, soccer, and other sports). What difference will your finishing position make to your income? The answer is it will make no difference unless you are doing better or worse in the race due to extra duration or intensity of work – not due to natural talent – since only duration and intensity is remunerated.


In other words, if you are a natural-born jackrabbit competing in a marathon, you can’t waltz across the finish line first, expending little effort in the race and in preparing for it, and expect to get high remuneration. And even if you did exert more than the social average, and if you worked overtime to get ready, the extra income you would thereby earn would be proportionate to your effort and not to your results. Your income would therefore certainly not be humongous, but socially sensible. 


And this remunerative approach is not only morally sound -which is to say one shouldn’t be remunerated extra for natural born talent or even for the output of training as compared to the difficulty, intensity, and duration of training – but it is also economically sound, which is to say it has the appropriate incentive effects eliciting maximal performance.


What a runner needs as an incentive to run faster is not inordinate reward for natural born talent because the runner can do nothing to enhance genetic talent and rewarding talent actually provides incentive only to win even if at a much slower pace than one is capable of. What does provide incentive is remuneration for the extra effort that goes into running faster, or lower income for not expending full effort.


This is all well and good, and is also consistent with parecon more broadly, and so by this time this kind of logic is hopefully not surprising. But, the question still remains, will athletics exist as an economic industry at all – not just as a hobby – in a good economy?


Why not? Why won’t future citizens of a classless economy want to watch runners, bikers, kickers, shooters, passers, and hitters just as we do now, as exemplars of human performance in their respective fields? In that respect, how is it different than people wanting to see the work of painters, poets, novelists, sculptors, singers, composers, or performers?


If in a good economy we will want to have symphonies or other performances, movies, or shows, with remuneration for their production and performance, why wouldn’t we also want to have athletic events to watch, aspire to, admire, and enjoy, including providing remuneration for their production and performance?


Many critics of capitalism will have doubts about this, I suspect. Leftists dislike sports for their macho dynamics, racial biases, violence, commercialism, and class inequalities. But all this will be gone, presumably, in a good society and economy. Nonetheless, many leftists will remain suspicious that competition imposes conflict among people, and that competition is in that sense detrimental. 


Critics of competition may say that while an orchestra aspires to the highest quality it can attain, and while we admire performances in accord with quality, and while we likewise enjoy and respect some compositions more than others, and we admire and enjoy some paintings, poetry, and novels more than others, no product to succeed requires that another product fail. There is no intrinsic necessity for winners and losers. But with sports, this critic might add, winning and losing is often intrinsic to the activity. In a good society, the critic argues, this quality should make sports unworthy of being considered an industry with remuneration for workers.


First, it is correct that a great many sports intrinsically involve competition. We can conceive of competition-free alternatives, but they are not the same thing. In the late 1960s I used to play with friends a noncompetitive brand of basketball. We did score and defend when playing the game. But the score wasn’t germane and needn’t even be kept. A very good offensive player who was defended by a not so good defender would try to play in such a way as to bring out the defender’s best possible defensive effort. The expert on offense had the difficult challenge to elevate the defender’s effort, rather than scoring easily over and over.


Similarly, a really good defensive player covering a not so great offensive player would not shut the player down over and over, but would, instead, play with just the right tenacity and intrusiveness to spur the offensive player to play his or her best. 


Playing this way was fun and challenging, but it wasn’t basketball of the sort people enjoy when watching competitive NBA, college, or high school games. And of course there are many sports and games in which there is barely even a way to imagine a noncompetitive variant – say chess, the hundred yard dash, a marathon, car racing, or the pentathlon.


But what about the competition, urges the critic? We can’t want to reward and esteem the competition, can we?


Well, it is true that a central virtue of participatory economics is that participatory planning removes competition from economic allocation and also makes remuneration non-competitive. There is no zero-sum contest in participatory economic remuneration in which if I win you lose. However, this is deemed a great economic virtue not out of an a priori rejection of competition, but for allowing the economy to propel rather than violate solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management.


So is competition per se a problem? If we don’t increase income for the winner of a contest and we don’t reduce income for the loser, and if winning and losing have no bearing on workplace influence and self management and don’t lead to benefits in job definition and conditions, would competition still be problematic? 


Parecon doesn’t deny that performers and producers have different capacities. On the contrary, parecon has standards and admires excellence. You can’t get remunerated in a parecon for work that isn’t socially valued. You can’t play ball poorly, lay bricks poorly, or tend sheep poorly, for pay. To get paid for work it must produce socially valued output, which means it must be done at a rate and efficiency that isn’t wasteful and inferior. 


I may want to be the shortstop on a baseball team like the Yankees, but Derek Jeter is so much better that the public would not value and indeed would be horrified by my work at that position. My play is simply not good enough to be worthy of employment as a shortstop. There is a competition for any balanced job complex that includes shortstopping for the Yankees. Indeed, there is also a competition in this same sense for all jobs. You have to be good enough in any job, but your income isn’t a function of how good you are.


Suppose, for example, that I want to be a physicist or an airplane pilot, or that I want to do heavy labor, or play the oboe, as part of my balanced job complex. So do other people, and in some cases, many more people than society needs. There is competition, therefore, for the honor of being able to be socially remunerated for each type of work. One must fulfill the social standards to get hired by a workers council. If I can’t fulfill the social standards sufficiently to be producing desired output, I can do read physics books, fly model planes, lift weights, or play oboe as a hobby, of course, but not for remuneration. 


Thus, a parecon is not without competition. But in parecon’s competitions, winning or losing doesn’t determine a level of pay, a level of influence, or conditions of work. What the competition does, instead, is to generate, reveal, and utilize competence. The competition thus yields something that we all benefit from without denying values we hold dear. 


Can athletic competition be similarly positive, without negative side effects?


Suppose you play a game of chess (and yes, I think chess is a sport with struggle, challenge, and endurance but if you prefer to just think of it as a game, for our purposes here, that doesn’t matter) with an opponent. Does the quality of your chess playing experience depend on whether you win or lose? It certainly might. It could be that you get more pleasure out of winning against a weak opponent easily, for example, even if you have played mundanely and inattentively due to your being a much better player, than you get pleasure out of just barely losing a finely played and very challenging game, due to your opponent being a bit better than you but with you playing at your absolute best. If so, it is mostly winning and losing that affects your mood, not the quality of your play.


On the other hand, can we imagine a society in which you typically get more pleasure out of playing really well in a really challenging and exciting struggle that you lose, than you get out of winning easily? Isn’t this what we tell our kids, in fact, all the time – that it’s how you play the game, not if you win or lose, that matters, and that this is true even though you must try to win for there to be a game at all?


The effect of parecon on sports would certainly be profound. It would not mean that teams and individuals wouldn’t try to win. It would mean, however, that their incomes would not be pegged to winning or losing. We would want to see quality, as now, but we would not reward quality per se. 


Would athletes and audiences celebrate winners, or celebrate people that manifest their capacities fully – or both? Would fans get more pleasure out of their team winning easily while playing poorly, or out of their team losing a close, hard-fought struggle, but playing well? 


In a good economy, would people no longer be paid for playing chess because there must be a winner and a loser, or would competitive chess persist, including championships, because we value quality of play and wish to observe, study, and enjoy talent, endurance, and effort in chess like in so many other areas – but without win-based reward or loss-based penalty? 


What about golf, soccer, or basketball? For that matter, would boxing disappear for being too violent a competition? What would become of car racing, horse racing, or marathons? How about archery, javelin, or pole vaulting?


We can’t know the answers to these questions (not least because different societies may well answer differently) any more than we can know what will happen in other industries in the future. Nor is there any reason to be agitated about our inability to predict future preferences. A vision for an economy or for any other part of life isn’t about figuring out what choices future workers and consumers will make. It is about figuring out what type of institutional relations will permit workers and consumers to make the choices they prefer while furthering values they hold dear. 


We can confidently assert that parecon will make equitable the way athletes are remunerated, will balance their jobs, and will no doubt also impact the way athletes are viewed and their influence in society. We can also assert that parecon will likely change the way people regard and enjoy competitions.


Today star athletes earn millions and lord it over most of humanity. In a pareconish future, star athletes will earn incomes and be treated like all other citizens. Now, sports are subordinated to profit and power. In a pareconish future, sports will be like all other economic pursuits, solidaritous, diverse, equitable, and self managed.


The precise details of the future content and texture of athletics, whether undertaken for remuneration or in leisure time, as with the precise details of the future content and texture of music, art, literature, transportation, education, dining, fashion, science, sex, or anything else, are for future citizens to work out in their own free fashion. 


What an advocate of parecon urges is only that people exercise their economic preferences through workers and consumers councils, using self managed decision making, being remunerated for effort and sacrifice, fulfilling balanced job complexes, and abiding participatory planning. But this is enough, it seems, to guarantee that parecon will satisfy the requirements of enlightened athletics and vice versa. Parecon is a sports economy.

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