Michael, about twenty years ago, you and Robin Hahnel developed participatory economics, or Parecon, as an alternative to capitalism and centrally planned economies. Could you describe, in a nutshell, your proposal?
Parecon is, as you note, a vision for an economy to replace capitalism, and also what has been called twentieth century socialism. The idea behind parecon is to determine the minimum set of institutions an economy must have to be classless and self managed by its workers and consumers in their own interests, as they decide, without structural biases and without some small group dominating. Beyond that minimum, of course much will vary in participatory economies from country to country, industry to industry, and neighborhood to neighborhood.
The vision includes workers and consumers self managing councils, a familiar historical option, that in our case, however, clarifies that self managing means people influence decisions in proportion as they are affected by them. Sometimes this means majority rules, other times consensus, and other times other modes of translating preferences into decisions. The voting options are tactical choices one makes, case to case and situation to situation, to implement the actual principled goal of self management.
The second parecon commitment is to what we call balanced job complexes. To understand this feature, note that nowadays, workers typically come in two broad types. The first type, who parecon advocates call the coordinator class, does overwhelmingly empowering tasks. Think of lawyers, doctors, engineers, and financial officers. The tasks they do convey to them information, habits of decision making, agenda setting responsibilities, communication skills, social confidence, etc. The second type worker, who we call the working class, does overwhelmingly disempowering tasks. Think of assemblers, short order cooks, and generally folks doing repetitive tasks that are exhausting and cause the person to wind up with less confidence, less information, and less social skills, than otherwise. The coordinator class, due to the division of labor giving thm only empowering tasks to do dominates the rest of the workforce. It is a group between labor and capital that becomes the ruling class in old style socialism. It aggrandizes to itself a very large share of social wealth and power, particularly in the absence of owners.
So the problem is that even if we have workers and consumers councils and even if we are sincerely committed to self management, if we keep the old division of labor where about 20% of those working do all the empowering tasks, then that 20% will set the agendas and do all the presenting and debating and preparing. Their views will dominate. Their aims will be met – and they will come to see themselves as superior, more deserving, and more valuable. They will see workers who carry out their instructions as less capable, as needing direction, as needing "help." In time the coordinators will rule, typically with arrogant callousness, from above.
So balanced job complexes, parecon's second institutional commitment, aims to overcome this old division of labor. With balanced job complexes we apportion tasks into jobs so that every job has a mix of tasks such that a person doing that job has a comparably empowering overall situation as everyone else. By the roles and responsibilities we have in the economy, we are each prepared to participate fully in self management. A few are not emboldened and prepared. Many others are not made passive and unprepared. We are all instead comparably empowered.
The third component of parecon has to do with income distribution. How much income do we get for our labors? There is a social product – which you can think o