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Parecon & Movement Building


The following is a summary statement offered as basis for an exploration/debate with Wayne Price a member of the the Northeastern Federation of Anarchist-Communists (NEFAC).

 

Wanting parecon for the economy implies a commitment to justice consistent with wanting revolutionary transformation of other spheres of life as well. To overcome cynicism, guide practice, deepen support, avoid hypocrisy, and learn as we go, we need mutually compatible, inspiring, and widely shared vision, encompassing political, kinship, cultural, and economic relations. More, deriving from that shared vision, we also need a shared strategic perspective that we are motivated to collectively implement. Yet no widely shared visions for society much less social strategy for attaining it as yet hold wide left allegiance, though there are tentative proposals for some parts and hopeful ideas about pursuing other parts.

 

Economic Vision

 

For the economy, which is central for purposes of this summary exploration of explicitly pareconish views (as compared to equally pivotal views highlighting other parts of social life), the functions I see are production, consumption, and allocation. Values I favor are meeting needs and developing potentials plus propelling solidarity, diversity, equity, and self-management while not wasting valuable assets. The combination, with growing numbers of advocates, is called parecon and claims to be a viable vision for a post capitalist economy and thus one part of a broader vision for new society.

 

An economy should produce and appropriately distribute worthy outputs but also produce empathy rather than hostility, diversity rather than homogeneity, equity rather than exploitation, and self management rather than elite rule – or, put differently, it should entail classlessness.??

 

Parecon rejects private ownership because it leads to few people owning and controlling almost all productive assets and therefore wielding tremendous power. ??

 

Parecon also rejects the corporate division of labor, which ensures that about 20% of employees are empowered by their work while about 80% are disempowered by theirs.

 

And parecon also rejects the market because markets destroy social conscience, produce anti sociality, violate ecology, and ensure that individual workers and consumers operate in isolation from social concern, trying to get ahead at others’ expense. More, markets create incredibly harsh inequality, impose near universal alienation, and perhaps most damning, impose class division even in the absence of private ownership.

 

In participatory economics, asset ownership generates no differentials in income or influence. In a parecon, indeed, instead of people being remunerated profits for their property, or extortionist wages for their bargaining power, or even wages equal to their output, people receive income based only on how long and how hard they work and what conditions they endure at useful labor.

 

If you can’t work, or you have special medical needs, your income is guaranteed as are your health needs. But for those who can work, how much of the social product you can consume depends only on how intensely and how long you do socially valued work under how harsh conditions.

 

If that summarizes ownership and remuneration, how will inputs and outputs mesh in a parecon? People in their self managing councils develop a proposal for their economic activity. We figure out what we want to do at work or want to consume in our daily lives, both individually and with our work groups or consumer units, and we register our preferences. The mesh of those preferences is refined in a number of rounds of cooperative negotiations until we settle on a comprehensive agenda. Everyone influences this agreed allocation in proportion as they are affected by the decisions under consideration. There are many more details to this allocation system, of course, involving the flow of information and the calculation and communication of prices based on preferences and work arrangements, among other aspects, but the essence is that each worker or consumer, both individually and in groups – assesses their own desires and situation to propose their production and consumption. Of course their separate proposals can’t be enacted without meshing them one to the rest, and that occurs via a series of rounds of refinement we call participatory planning.

 

There is no top or bottom. Instructions do not come from some people and disseminate to others who obey. Competition does not drive the process. There are all people’s desires and all technical and human possibilities, plus a participatory process for meshing these into an economic plan. The result is a set of valuations of inputs and outputs that take into account the full social and ecological costs and benefits of their production and consumption. All actors consistently with also producing solidarity, diversity, equity, and self-management together determine an agenda for production and distribution.

 

Another parecon defining features is how it organizes workplaces. First, for self management there must be a venue for workers to meet and conduct their affairs. This is called the worker’s council and it uses self managed decision making procedures. But beyond that, there is also an issue of how to organize work itself.

 

In capitalism, owners establish jobs each of which embody only either empowering or disempowering tasks. One person does janitorial work. Someone else does secretarial tasks. Someone else administers employees. Another person determines financial policy. Each job occupies a place in a hierarchical scheme and about 20% of employees at the top monopolize the economy’s empowering tasks while 80% at the bottom do only rote and repetitive work. The former employees enjoy greater access, knowledge, and confidence, and, as a result, dominate the latter employees who are overwhelmingly only disenfranchised, exhausted, and socially diminished by their disempowering labors.

 

The participatory approach to organizing work, in contrast, is for the workers via their councils to incorporate a balanced selection of complementary tasks into each job, so that in sum total we each have comparably empowering conditions in our daily economic work lives. Each person gets a fair and comparable assignment — or balanced job complex. We don’t all do the same tasks, nor do any of us do tasks we aren’t suited for. Instead, we all do a range of tasks with essentially the same sum total of empowerment implications for each of us. The purpose and result is that everyone can participate appropriately in self managed decision-making rather than a few dominating the rest.

 

The overall difference between capitalist economics and participatory economics, in sum, is the difference between having private ownership, corporate hierarchy, remuneration for property and power, and markets – and having council self-management, balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort, sacrifice, and need, and participatory planning. While of course it would require additional exploration to prove the point, it is the difference between economic irrationality, injustice, and hierarchy, and economic rationality, justice, and liberty. It is the difference between class division and classlessness.

 

But Parecon posits also, that what has been called socialism typically combines all the rejected features other than private ownership into a system that elevates coordinator class members, not workers, to ruling status. You can transcend capitalism, yet not attain classlessness.

 

Economic Strategy

 

People ask activists not only what do you want, but how do you expect to get it against the immense obstacles in your way? It is a fair question and we need to compellingly describe a strategic path forward. We need to show how visionary aims we advocate and an array of proposed organizational programs and tactics can combine into a forward-moving trajectory that people will in turn refine and expand by their accumulating experience. But there is not only one right way forward and most strategic commitments need to be flexible, and certainly not dismissive much less sectarian. Having a parecon vision in no way implies having lockstep strategic intuitions, only experience will elevate some organizing ideas above others.

 

Still, for me, the first implication of a classless vision has to do with what we fight for, and with how we fight for it. To win higher wages, better work conditions, more progressive taxes, progressive laws about ecology, or a higher minimum wage, for example, as well as equally importantly to win gains in other spheres of life, can of course be part of transcending capitalism (patriarchy, racism, and authoritarianism). But winning such gains can also seek only to ameliorate capitalism’s ills while accepting its persistence.

 

This is the difference between a reformist and a revolutionary approach. In the former case, you win gains, and that’s the end of it. You celebrate a job well done and go home.

 

In the latter case, gains are themselves worthy and desirable, but you fight for them in ways that cause everyone involved to be well prepared to win more gains, on the road to a new economy. But revolution is not violence or cataclysm or any other simple single thing. It is a transformation of defining social relations and associated human behavior and beliefs in one or more central spheres of social life, no matter how those changes come into being.

 

Everyone who fights for higher wages, better conditions, or other gains does so at least in part for the benefits to accrue to worthy recipients. But a revolutionary also fights for such gains based on advocating the values of a new society and in ways developing infrastructure that arouses passions for that new society and means to attain it. The revolutionary seeks reforms, but in a non reformist way also seeking change in underlying defining institutions.

 

A second strategic implication of a pareconish commitment is that one can sincerely fight capitalism and even personally want classlessness, and seek it, but utilize old corporate divisions of labor and or markets or central planning and by those choices, despite one’s contrary hopes, preserve and even strengthen class division between coordinators monopolizing empowering work and workers enduring disempowering work.

 

This economic outcome I call coordinatorism, but the sad truth is it has often usurped the name socialism. Thus, even fighting for worthy gains and even constructing new institutions can be done in ways that will usher in coordinator outcomes or can be done in ways that will usher in participatory outcomes.

 

This is a life or death, victory or defeat difference. To seek classlessness requires that movements not just reject capitalism but also move toward self-managing decision making structures, equitable remuneration, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning.

 

A third pareconish strategic implication has to do with movement organizations. Progressive and left activists are correctly for ending racism and sexism in society. And we know that we must also persevere to reduce and finally end racial and sexual hierarchies inside our movements – since otherwise we are hypocritical, uninspiring, will suffer the ills of these oppressions ourselves, and moreover, our movements will neither strongly attract nor long retain women and people of color nor effectively pursue anti-racist and anti-sexist priorities. There is certainly more work to be done about race and gender in our movements, but the insight exists and our activity is generally pointing in the right direction.

 

However, left activists are also for ending economic injustice and class hierarchy in society. And we have to realize that that aim has a similar implication: we must patiently, calmly, and constructively restructure our movements so that they no longer replicate corporate divisions of labor and decision-making as well as market remuneration. This must become a priority if we are to transcend hypocrisy, become inspiring, escape class alienations, and especially if we are to strongly attract, retain, and empower working people in movement efforts, and retain our commitment to classlessness.

 

The left, for example, has a great many research organizations, think tanks, media projects, and organizing centers. In principle we know these should manifest our values in their internal organization. Yet when our current organizations pay people, they most often do it according to classist norms, rewarding power and position. Some of our people work in offices, make decisions, get higher pay, and have more status. Others work more menially, are obedient, have less or no status, earn much less pay, and have much less power. In short, rather than reducing class divisions by providing jobs that employ people’s full capacities and share onerous tasks equitably, our organizations often have typically corporate relations. The strategic problem still to be addressed or even acknowledged, is to incorporate into these projects desirable norms and values regarding class.

 

Given the need to win fundamental change in all sides of life – a priority that has been short shrifted in this brief summary – another of parecon’s strategic implications is that we need to develop an encompassing approach to combining our many activisms in solidarity even while also respecting their autonomy

 

Movements elevate different priorities because people endure different conditions depending on race, gender, class, sexuality, and diverse other factors. The ensuing diversity of orientation is good in the breadth and depth of attention it gives each side of life. But the fact that our movements often don’t aid one another, or even compete with another, robs each movement of the unity with others essential to success.

 

Different agendas need space to develop, gain confidence, retain focus, and exert leadership. You can’t get unity by telling everyone to forget his or her felt priorities and line up behind one narrow program. But even as people retain unique identities and different priorities in autonomous movements, to win, these different movements also need breadth of allegiance, which means that each has to benefit from the strength and character of the rest. We need to solve the problem of respecting diversity and autonomy even as we find ways to have an overarching sense of solidarity.

 

Everyone will ultimately be fighting the totality of oppressions, mutually supportively, even as different people with different experiences and backgrounds will undoubtedly focus more attention on one or another oppression. One big step toward unity with diversity will be for larger movements to support smaller ones, and for richer movements to help pay the way of poorer ones – unreservedly and with people’s bodies as well as resources, plus developing a movement of movements organizational alignment that facilities such solidarity.

 

It is a constant refrain – "how come you leftists are always talking to the choir?" There are sadly no doubt some folks who do it because it is easier than reaching out to people we don’t know who may disagree with what we have to say, and who may even be hostile. But the main explanation for why people on the left are most often talking overwhelmingly to people who are also on the left, or who already wish to be on the left, is that the left doesn’t have a megaphone loud enough to be heard by folks who aren’t already all ears to our messages. Because our media are still very small even when we bust a gut shouting, we reach overwhelmingly only folks who are already listening for us.

 

Another implication of a pareconish commitment to create majoritarian movements of highly informed participants is therefore that we need to develop means to communicate with the broader populace not yet in tune with us, as well as facilitating mutual exchange among our supportive constituency.

 

We need to strengthen our current alternative media, supporting and enlarging it, and we need to pressure mainstream media as well – but beyond those two tasks we also need to ensure that the left gains mass media mechanisms that place left views, analyses, agendas, and visions in front of the whole population rather than being visible only in hard-to-find nooks and crannies that people have to search for to even know we exist.

 

On another axis of movement need, we know that money matters in our societies, but we don’t seem to realize that money matters on the left too. Where does it come from? How is it handled? Is it empowering a few to the detriment of the many? Is there enough of it? Most leftists don’t know the answers because this topic is essentially taboo. Try to find essays and ruminations much less proposals about how events, projects, and demos should be funded, much less about how funds that arrive should be redistributed among efforts. Mostly, you can’t. There is a gigantic silence.

 

Ignoring how we get and how we handle money is a dead-end approach beneficial only to those who monopolize control of what marginal monies the left now enjoys. Another strategic implication of pareconish aims is that we need to develop means to finance operations consistent with our values and aspirations.

 

Surely future movements will inspire, empower, fill needs, raise aspirations… enrich lives. Surely, once people come within their orbit, they will become committed. Yet, over the past few decades, millions of folks have come into proximity of the left, participated in various left events and projects, and later opted out. Future movements will have to be quite different.

 

There are many reasons why people don’t stick with political dissent and activism. Not least, a movement that can persevere over the long haul with continuity and commitment needs to uplift rather than to harass its membership, to enrich its members’ lives rather than to diminish them, to meet its members’ needs rather than to neglect or even ridicule them. To join a movement and become lonelier is not conducive to movements growing. To join a movement and laugh less doesn’t yield ever larger and more powerful movements.

 

Thus to be on the road to the future, we need to make our movements congenial to from all kinds of backgrounds. Movement building involves lots of tedium, of course, but there is no reason to make movement building as deadening as possible, rather than as rich, varied, and rewarding as possible.

 

Our movements must retain their members – is their any simpler strategic observation? But this means we need to make movement participation provide full, diverse lives rather than only long meetings or obscure lifestyles so divorced from social involvement that they preclude all but a very few people from partaking.

 

We admirably struggle to make the world less oppressive and more liberating. If we want to win, doing the same for our movements is urgent too. 

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