Below are ten frequently asked questions that I try to succinctly answer.
1. Why do we need vision at all? Why should we worry about the shape of a future society? Isn’t it sufficient to reject current injustice?
People throughout society know that activists want to escape contemporary oppressions. They know we seek short run aims like higher wages or an end to a war or the IMF. But they think that short of fundamental change what all our fighting yields will be quickly unraveled. People doubt that activism will lead somewhere desirable and ask us our long term vision because without a destination they find our calls to action unconvincing. They don’t want to blow against the wind.
I like Lewis Carroll’s answer to your question in Alice in Wonderland. “One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. Which road do I take? she asked. Where do you want to go? was his response. I don’t know, Alice answered. Then, said the cat, it doesn’t matter.”
We need vision for hope, for insight, and for direction.
2. But doesn’t proposing social vision overstep our possible knowledge? And doesn’t social vision have to emerge from broad constituencies with lots of experience? What sense can it make for an individual or even a bunch of folks to be pursuing creating vision?
Trying to foresee every detail of a future society would be seeking useless, pointless, and unattainable knowledge, I agree. But we don’t need to know contingent future details. We just need to know what key institutions we like and why they would work well for us.
Yes, social vision has to incorporate the ideas of many people with many backgrounds and much experience. Thus we need to have ever wider constituencies test and refine social vision. If lone individuals or small groups initially offer some vision, the aim is that larger groups take it up, and then whole movements.
Is it too soon to undertake, or reinvigorate, vision building? Not at all. We have centuries of highly relevant experiences by diverse constituencies to consult. Why can’t people call upon all that, and on their own personal histories as well, to propose vision that is in turn publicly refined and improved? It isn’t too soon to do any of that.
3. But won’t having vision close us off to new possibilities and make us sectarian? Won’t we advocate what we propose so tenaciously that we then miss new insights? Isn’t a blueprint more than we need?
You are right that we can become tied dyed or blue jean-ed puppets to political lines scarcely less regimented than gray flannel corporate puppets mindlessly pursuing market shares. But the solution to having sectarian vision isn’t to have no vision- just like the solution to having callous sex or unhealthy food isn’t having no sex or no food.
The solution to being sectarian is to have our attitude to a favored vision be flexible and learning-oriented. The problem of mindlessly defending views unto death arises when we feel that being flexible about our views denies our integrity. We should instead see our integrity as residing in our openness.
Analyzing capitalist economics, or parliamentary democracy, or racism, or sexism as they are now doesn’t mean detailing and explaining every nook and cranny of these realms. It means identifying broad defining features and explaining their properties and implications. Vision is similar. We don’t need nor can we remotely enumerate every detail that could come into being. A blueprint of a new society is absurd. But we can describe possible defining institutions and investigate their broad implications and compare these implications to our aspirations to decide which to advocate.
4. Why economics? What about everything else? Doesn’t pursuit of economic vision slight the rest?
We need economic hope, orientation, and direction, so we should produce economic vision. But other aspects of society such as polity, culture, family life and kin relations are also important, and we should produce vision for these as well.
I work on economics. Someone else might work on kinship, another person on culture, and another person on polity. Pursuing economic vision no more slights pursuing cultural, political, or kinship vision than pursuing any of those would slight economics.
5. What’s so bad about capitalism?
Capitalism produces Herculean disparities of income and wealth. It pits people against one another rather than producing mutual accord. It relegates most people to obedience rather than facilitating people controlling their own lives.
Capitalism isolates and alienates rather than generating respect and sympathy. It causes war, rather than producing peace.
In capitalism, even where there is great abundance many people live in cardboard boxes. Citizens roam streets with their limbs smashed and minds corralled.
Capitalism creates subservience and indignity, damage and death. All that is good in people’s lives arises against the logic of market madness. What is bad is business as usual. Love, comradeship, artistry, and dignity become profit opportunities. Nothing is sacred. Everything is commercialized. People starve. Money doesn’t talk, it swears.
Evaluated by humane standards not only is almost everything broken, we all know it is broken, and we have to get on with our lives anyhow. Capitalism is a thug’s economy, a heartless economy, a base and vile and largely boring economy. It is the antithesis of human fulfillment and development. It mocks equity and justice. It enshrines greed.
Capitalism sucks. Does anyone seriously want to contest that?
6. But why not advocate an economic vision we already have? Why not social democracy? Why not socialism? Why not Anarchism? Why not bioregionalism? Why do we need a whole new logic, a new name?
It would be easier to advocate a familiar model, but I find them seriously flawed.
Social democracy is capitalism with workers and what I call coordinators, including managers, professionals, etc., made more powerful compared to capitalists. This realignment of bargaining power tempers many of the worst flaws of the system, yes, but it doesn’t eliminate those flaws, and the flaws, even reduced in impact, are quite horrible.
Social democracy not only doesn’t arrive at entirely new relations, its modest gains are highly unstable, dissipating whenever capitalists regain lost power. Unless we seek only stopgap reductions of horrors, we shouldn’t advocate social democracy.
Socialism is obscure. For some people socialism just means “good economy,” or “classless economy,” or “economy with justice and equity,” or “economy with self management.” Okay, that’s fine. I want those virtues in a vision, of course. But I believe using the label socialism this way confuses reality because every instance of socialism that has ever existed, and virtually every formulation of socialism as a vision, has attributes that trample these desired virtues.
In actual practice, and as a seriously specified model, socialism means public or state ownership of productive property, plus markets or central planning, plus corporate divisions of labor. No one who proposes a model called socialism significantly deviates from these features, so socialism, as it is actually specified and enacted, is a class divided economy that has inequality and subordination for most of its actors.
The group that I call the coordinator class rises to ruling status in socialism. Some of the ills of capitalism are transcended, but new flaws emerge and they are far too damning for me to advocate this aim. Socialism says that institutions a, b, and c are central, and I reject institutions b, and c and have a markedly different approach to a, as well. What sense would it make for me to use the label socialist for what I advocate?
Many socialists will say, however — wait a minute, we think parecon is socialism. We too reject those vile systems that have existed historically and that are touted in dingy old textbooks. Okay, if such people agree that markets and central planning and corporate divisions of labor, and remuneration for output are all violations of our aspirations and favor pareconish alternatives, then we agree on substance and I only add that I don’t think we should use terms that needlessly confuse virtually everyone else.
Anarchism is fine when it is confined to meaning people running their own lives or enjoying classlessness. But beyond that I think there is no anarchist proposed system of institutions to accomplish production, consumption, and especially allocation in accord with anti authoritarian aspirations. There is a sense, indeed, in which participatory economics is arguably an anarchist economic vision, but if anarchists come to agree on this, I think using the more indicative label is important to add clarity that there is something new proposed.
Bioregionalism seems to me to be a kind of injunction that different locales should be as economically self sufficient as possible – as a virtue unto itself. I don’t understand the logic behind this injunction or what its virtue is. It intends to combat violations of ecology – I realize — which is important to do, of course. But while sometimes it makes sense from the point of view of minimizing pollution and preserving non-renewable resources to produce locally for local use – other times it is better to have larger scale production and then ship the results to diverse places, even regarding pollution and frugal use of resources, much less regarding equitable access to desirable outputs.
A good economy, a Green economy, should make the choice about what scale firms should be, and whether there should be local, regional, or even national production, not in some fixed and unyielding way, but as conditions and accurate assessments warrant. I think this impetus of ecological activists worried about self sufficiency and scale is in fact implemented properly by parecon and not by bioregionalism.
7. Okay, so what are the institutional features of participatory economics?
There is no ownership of means of production. Or, if you prefer, in the U.S. for example, we all would own roughly one three hundred millionth of each factory, mine, etc., but our ownership would have no implications for our influence or our income at all.
In other words, in a parecon, I own my shirt, my bicycle, etc., but I don’t own the place where I work. The right to influence decisions about the place where I work derives from being affected by those decisions, not via ownership.
Beyond new property relations, workers and consumers are organized into councils for direct input into economic life, and these councils apportion decision making influence over choices in proportion as the choices impact people. If you will be more affected, you will get more say. If you will be less affected, you will get less say. This holds across the whole economy.
The division of labor inside and among workplaces is changed to what are called balanced job complexes. Each job has a mix of tasks and responsibilities that in sum convey average empowerment and quality of life implications. Instead of 20% of the working populace monopolizing all the empowering tasks and 80% having only rote and obedient tasks, in a parecon all who work have a mix of tasks that, on average, leaves each person equally empowered by their work.
There is still surgery and other skilled and knowledge-based and otherwise empowering work in a parecon, of course, and people still learn to do these complex labors. But surgeons clean or answer phones, as well doing operations. There is still drudge work, dangerous work, boring work, just as there is still complex and empowering and enervating work. People do the nasty labors and the empowering labors in a mix with an overall quality of life and empowerment balance.
Parecon’s norm of remuneration, or payment, is for effort and sacrifice at socially valued work. In parecon there is no income for owning property, or for bargaining power, or for output. If a person works longer he gets more. If a person works harder she gets more. If a person happened to do, for some reason, more onerous or otherwise harsh labor, he or she would get more to offset that sacrifice.
Allocation determines what is produced, in what quantities, distributed to whom, and with what valuations. In a parecon it is accomplished by what is called participatory planning. This is a system of decentralized cooperative negotiation that arrives at relative valuations (or prices) that reflect true social costs and benefits which in turn inform decisions about actual inputs and outputs. Influence from each actor is in proportion as he or she is affected by the choices.
Naturally the above is a ridiculously succinct sketch. The point is, however, that the key institutions of parecon are designed so that there is no capitalist class and no coordinator class, but, instead, there are people who work and consume and who all enjoy the same opportunities and same broad conditions, even as they each do their own special labors – all without class division or class rule.
8. Do these new institutions have new properties?
The new institutions produce solidarity among actors. Each actor, to get ahead, has to actually pay attention to the well being of others, rather than seeking to trample others well being. Instead of nice guys finishing last, even nasty guys have to worry about the social good as a means to attain private advance.
The new institutions produce equity. Each actor receives a share of the social output in accord with the effort and sacrifice he or she expends to help produce that output. There are no huge nor even dramatic differentials in income and wealth. You earn more only if you work longer, or harder, or at more onerous labors. And the average quality of each person’s job improves only as the average balanced job complex improves for everyone.
The new institutions produce diversity. They honor and seek varied solutions and options by abiding the wills of the whole populace rather than only elite sectors.
The new institutions produce self management. They accord to each actor, whether in workplaces, in consumer units, or via the allocation system, appropriate influences over each decision, from the smallest personal choices to the largest collective projects – and everything in between.
The new institutions generate classlessness, sustainability, and efficient use of assets – both human and material – to meet needs and develop potentials. Each actor is free to pursue and fulfill their economic needs consistently with every other actor being able to do likewise.
9. Why should we believe parecon would actually work as you claim? What should people be doing about it, on hearing of this vision?
You shouldn’t believe claims about parecon just on my say so, of course. You would need to look at the descriptions and associated arguments in more detail and make assessments based on evidence offered and also based on your own experiences and understandings.
If someone claims there is a cure for cancer, you should hope it is true. If the claim seems coherent, if it comes from sources who are serious and sober, if it begins to be challenged and debated and it holds up well, if it has some tests that seem to bear it out – you should start to assess the claim more thoroughly.
The claim about a new type economy is different than a claim about a cancer cure, however, in that a cancer cure will be very highly technical. To personally investigate its merits will require intense familiarity with all kinds of scientific methods, concepts, and evidence. Most of us will have to rely largely on highly trained people who focus very intently on microbiology and report their findings to us.
But with economic vision the visionary claim is about conditions we daily experience. We may initially hear claims from individuals who have spent more time on the topic, sure, but there is no huge learning curve to ourselves attaining valid and insightful opinions. Understanding parecon doesn’t require massive training, nor does understanding it require extreme focus. If the parecon vision is presented in plain language, anyone interested in comprehending its properties and assessing their merits should with some modest effort be able to do so.
I think people who hear about the model – via interviews or short articles or whatever — should hope that parecon is a real, viable, and worthy alternative to capitalism and to market and centrally planned socialism. Some will hopefully already feel like, hey, I am going to examine the full presentation and its claims more fully myself. I am going to assess them and perhaps debate them and refine them. If the first folks doing all that become advocates, more folks will participate as well.
10. Supposing we thought parecon would work, what difference would it make? We can’t win a whole new economy anytime soon – so what difference does it make if we advocate parecon or not?
First, it would give us a positive orientation and provide us a means to overcome cynicism, not only in the broad public, but in ourselves as well. But I think you are asking how it would impact our work.
Our activist choices need to not only oppose what is, but to build the consciousness, commitment, and infrastructure of what we desire to attain. In that light, supporting parecon would engender endless implications for how we talk about injustices and how we describe what we favor, as well as for how we organize ourselves.
For example, there would no longer be tooth and nail arguments about consensus versus fifty percent rule, etc. Rather, leftists would see that the guiding principle for decision making is self management, and that the different modalities of decision making and communication that people can choose among are just tools for attaining self management – and that we should use different tools in different contexts.
Having parecon as a shared economic goal would point us toward demands that increase participation in allocation, and toward income demands that move toward remunerating effort and sacrifice. It would propel us toward building worker and consumer councils.
In time, we would no more tolerate movement organizations that embodied corporate and market oriented norms than ones that tolerate sexist or racist norms. Our organizations would come to have remuneration for effort and sacrifice not for the relative power or credentials that activists have, nor for their productivity. And our organizations would come to have self managed decision making methods and, in particular, balanced job complexes rather than divisions of labor typically found in corporations. These would be immense changes in our values and behaviors, even just regarding these few quick examples. So, as noted earlier, the reason we need vision is not just to overcome cynicism, though that is very important, but also to provide insights that inform our choices now.
There must be some way out of here -but it is very important that the way out of here that we choose doesn’t lead us in a circle back to where we started, or lead us to a new system that is still a dungeon, even if it has new jailers. Parecon will help on all these counts, I hope.