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Participatory Society and The Trajectory of Change


Assuming we agree that a society built on authoritarianism, patriarchy, racism, and capitalist exploitation is abysmal, what new social systems do we want and how do we expect to attain them?


People in civilization inevitably combine efforts to accomplish social functions. We establish institutions which delimit what society can and will provide us. Among the functions people’s institutions fulfill are culturally establishing identity and ways of communicating and celebrating, socially procreating and nurturing the next generation, politically adjudicating disputes and arriving at shared norms and projects, and economically producing, consuming, and allocating goods and services.


The central institutions in the derivative cultural, kinship, political, and economic spheres of social life centrally determine our human condition by providing role slots we must choose among (or rebel against) in our life pursuits. These roles (including cultural, familial, political, workplace and consumer) in turn affect what we do, what we have, and who we are. By these means institutions have so far in history divided us into (or determined the nature of) groups that impose on us opposed interests and socially constructed self perceptions, including dividing us into different cultural communities, races, and religions; into men and women, gay and straight, elderly and young; into members of different political bureaucracies and parties; and into members of different classes.


The vision task is to describe values we hold dear and then the central institutions for these spheres of social life that can accomplish their prescribed functions while simultaneously furthering those values.


The strategic task is to win improved conditions for the worst off constituencies of society in a trajectory of non reformist reforms that raises consciousness, enlarges commitment, and builds and strengthens organization, leading in time to movements able to establish wholly new institutions.


My work mostly refers to economic vision, so let me start there as a basis for later addressing vision more broadly and finally moving on to some issues of strategy.


All social institutions, and certainly the economy, impact the way people interact with one another. The relevant value that I and virtually all leftists aspire to is solidarity. We feel that for institutions to cause people to care about and mutually benefit rather than trample one another, is, other things equal, very desirable.


Institutions also impact the range of options actors have to choose among and enjoy. The left value for that is diversity which we favor both to pick among more choices, and also to enjoy vicariously what others do that we don’t as well as to avoid putting all our eggs in one basket.


These first two values, solidarity and diversity, are uncontroversial, not only on the left, but also more generally. Indeed, only the pathological  would say that greater anti-sociality and uniformity, all other things equal, are preferable to greater solidarity and diversity.


A third way that institutions impact us is by affecting the conditions we endure or enjoy in our lives, which include what we receive from society both in things and in settings. For the economy, this is about income as well as circumstances in our economic activity. The value most people on the left aspire to is equity, but not everyone agrees on what this means. Some say that people should get income for the property they own or their bargaining power, but no serious leftists that I know of say that, so we can simply set that view aside. Many people, however, including on the left, say that we should be remunerated for the output we contribute to the overall economic product. We should get back income equivalent to the value we produce. If you produce more output, you get more. If you produce less, then you get less.


I reject this option, however, because it rewards people for genetic endowment, better tools, better workmates, and luck in what they produce, among other variables, none of which seem to me morally warranted or economically desirable. In place of remunerating output I favor rewarding effort and sacrifice only. We should get more income if we work longer or harder, or if we work at worse conditions so that our sacrifice is greater. If we had doctors and trash collectors in our new society (though, as we shall soon see, I don’t believe we should), then the latter would earn more per hour due to their greater effort and the lesser fulfillment value, or, put otherwise, the greater sacrifice that is involved in their labor.


A fourth impact of institutions, including the economy, is on how much decision making say over outcomes people have. I favor what I call self management. It seems to me that each of us should have a say in decisions proportionate to the relative impact those decisions have on us. There is no moral warrant for anyone who isn’t mentally incapacitated to have either less or more than that level of influence. We shouldn’t have rule by one individual alone, or one-person-one-vote fifty percent plus one rules, or two-thirds is needed, or consensus, or any other decision pattern all the time, though each has its place. The point is, these are tactics for attaining the real goal, which is self management. We choose among these decision-making approaches depending on the attributes of the situation.


It is right that I should decide what color socks I wear with Stalinesque authority, and likewise, that I should decide all by myself whose picture to put on my workspace wall. But when decisions impact people more widely, decision making power is appropriately (which is to say proportionately) distributed. If I want to listen to music at work, now those who will hear it should have a say. If I want to consume something, or produce something, now those who are affected, other producers and consumers and possible recipients of by-products, all should have a say as well, one that is proportionate to the degree they are affected.


These four values – solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management – are obliterated by capitalist ownership, corporate divisions of labor, profit centered schemes of remuneration, and market allocation. Thus, if we take the values seriously, we are economic revolutionaries because to fulfill our values we must seek new institutions that further rather than subvert our preferred values.


When I try to conceive such new institutions for the economy I come up with what I call participatory economics, or parecon. How do we summarize it?


First, in any parecon we have worker and consumer councils. We have said that we are going to have self management of economic decisions and, if that is the case, then economic actors will of course need a place to express their preferences – and even to develop them – so they can proportionately influence outcomes. This occurs in the councils, which vary in size from individuals, living units, and neighborhoods, to regions and countries, and from work teams, divisions, and workplaces, to industries and whole economies. Within the workers and consumers councils communication and decision making occurs by different means in different cases and contexts, but the overriding principle is always that the means chosen should apportion decision making say to actors proportionate to the impact of outcomes on those actors.


Second, in a parecon we have balanced job complexes to replace the corporate division of labor that we now endure. In any economy, we take all the tasks in a workplace and combine some into one job, some into another, and so on. The change from capitalism to a participatory economy is that in a parecon we choose a mix of tasks for each job such that every job has an empowerment effect and a quality of life effect like every other job – a balanced job complex.


You do a job and so do I. We don’t do the same things, most likely. People have different jobs in different workplaces and in each workplace, both to get things done sensibly and because we have different tastes, talents, and preferences. But the mix of tasks that you do composing your job has the same overall quality of life and empowerment “rating” as the mix of tasks I do composing my job. There is no longer a class of actors who monopolize empowering conditions and circumstances – I call these the coordinator class – while another class of actors (workers) does only rote, tedious, or otherwise unempowering work.


There is still surgery, but those who do it do other balancing tasks as well – perhaps cleaning bedpans. There is still answering phones and working in mines, but those who do it do other tasks as well, either in their main workplace or elsewhere – with the total that everyone does balancing out regarding empowerment and quality of life implications.


In other words, parecon not only eliminates capitalists as a class (by eliminating private ownership of productive property), it also eliminates coordinators as a class (by eliminating monopolization of empowering circumstances). In a parecon we are all workers with balanced job complexes – there is one class, only.


Third, in a parecon we remunerate workers for effort and sacrifice only. Those who can’t work of course receive their income by right, an innovation that even social democracy and variants of capitalism respect. But interestingly, parecon, by virtue of having balanced job complexes, makes remuneration conceptually trivial. We work at jobs with comparable quality of life implications, and thus comparable overall sacrifice. Therefore we earn more or less only by virtue of working longer or working less long, or of working harder or working less hard. Decisions, as in every economic case, rest with the councils.


Fourth, and certainly most complex, we need a new allocation system. The one that I advocate as part of parecon is called participatory planning. I reject markets because they promote anti-sociality, they reduce variety, they remunerate power or at best output (and of course property in capitalist variants), and they skew power to the ruling class (which is capitalists in one variant and the coordinator class in market socialism). I reject central planning also, because it is authoritarian and again skews power to the ruling coordinator class. Indeed, the central point is that we want classlessness but these existing allocation options, like the corporate division of labor that goes with them, produce class division and class rule. Thus arises the need for a different approach.


Participatory planning uses a cooperative negotiation process to arrive at inputs and outputs for each workplace and at consumption items for each individual and also for each consumer council. Workers and consumers councils present their preferences. These are communicated and also summarized in diverse ways. Councils then make new proposals for inputs and outputs. This occurs through a number of rounds or iterations facilitated by various techniques and structures – mostly what are called facilitation boards. Relative valuations account for full social costs and benefits, transcending market incapacity to address goods with impact beyond the buyer and seller. Budgets are met, remuneration is equitable, outcomes are arrived at to directly pursue human well being and development.


But there is no center and periphery, and there is no top and bottom. The incredible claim for participatory planning is not only that within workplace units there is self management, but that there also is self management for the economy as a whole.


Yes, every economic choice affects everyone. At the very least when one thing is done, other things that I might prefer are not done and so it impacts me. More emphatically, I might have to spend my time working on the thing decided, or I might directly consume it, or I might be impacted by its by products. Yet the claim is that not only is economics intrinsically entwined, which is one of the few insights of mainstream economics that is accurate and highly instructive, but participatory planning apportions influence appropriately, nonetheless.


Of course the above is barely a description of parecon, much less a supportive argument on its behalf and rebuttal of counter fears and claims. Still, the few paragraphs reveal, I hope, the idea and essence of parecon and also of what I take to be the vision issue.


We don’t need, nor does it make any sense to think we could generate a future blueprint. That would transcend our knowledge and violate participation in the creative tasks of the future. And further, in a desirable future there will often be many ways of proceeding even toward the same basic goals. But, the future will not be anything goes. In every sphere there will be some key defining shared structures, perhaps more than one set but likely not many more, within which all this diversity holds sway. Most relevant, a future economy will not have two different logics of allocation, remuneration, division of labor. It won’t both have classes and class rule and not have classes. It won’t have authoritarian structures of political adjudication and decision making and also participatory ones. It is the defining structures that we need to compellingly envision, at least in their broad properties, to have hope, to gain insight into the present by contrast, and to be able to discern what will (and won’t) strategically get us where we wish to go.


For the economy I desire classlessness and advocate parecon and in contrast to Marxist Leninists and for that matter most Marxists as well, I reject what has been called market socialism and centrally planned socialism as each being ruled by a class of about 20 percent of the populace that currently resides between labor and capital, but which rises in what is called socialism to alone monopolize empowering labor and thereby dominate decisions and remunerate itself accordingly high.


Regarding other spheres of life — culture, kinship, and polity — I am vague about vision. I suspect we need new approaches to rearing the new generation if we are to overcome sexism. I am sure we need ways for cultural communities to feel secure but mutually respectful if we are to transcend racism and religious intolerance. I am confident we need new institutions of political decision making if we are to attain self management in that sphere and not only the economy. I know I would like new institutions in these other spheres of society to enhance solidarity among actors, to broaden our range of options, to distribute costs and benefits in all things equitably, and to provide self managing decision making influence. This certainly doesn’t mean we should have cultural homogenization ot no culture. It doesn’t mean we should have patriarchy or no gender. It doesn’t mean we should have authoritarianism via one party rule or even nominal democracy, but nor does it mean we should have no political institutions. As to what it does require in each sphere – that is the vision problem for these other spheres of life.


What about strategy? How do we win a better world?


We struggle against existing oppressive institutions and repressive consciousnesses and against those who would battle to preserve either. We do it partly by fighting for improvements in people’s lives now in ways that leave us with new footholds, enlarged commitment, empowered organization, and escalated inclination to fight for still more – all the way to a new society. We also create new institutions of our own embodying the values and structures of what we seek for a new society, partly to learn more about that sought future, partly as a model to inspire hope and commitment, and partly for the direct benefits that can accrue.


Since I see not only economics but also race and culture, kinship and gender and sexual relations, and political structures as each demarcating people into groups that can come to fight for or against change – I see a need for our movements to be multi-issue and multiply empowering and inspiring in order to be congenial to people moved by race, gender, sex, political power, or class issues.


Advocating parecon has important strategic implications. We should seek equitable remuneration in our organizations and in society. We should seek balanced job complexes, council self management, and participatory decision making in our organizations and in society. We should highlight the possibility of monopolization of information, skills, or positions that empower – and protect against impediments to our movements taking us where we wish to end up.


Bearing on the discussion about to ensue, all this leads me to reject a good part of the core of Marxism Leninism and its many variants.


I reject elevating economics to domineering conceptual or programmatic importance. I think race/culture, gender/kinship, and political affiliation/polity can be and in modern societies generally are equally central not only to how we live but to prospects for change – and likewise for the conceptually somewhat different relationship to the natural environment and between societies internationally. I think it is not only necessary to say and feel that sexism, racism, and authoritarianism are centrally important – but to have concepts and visions regarding these that continually propel us into taking that stance even as conflict heightens and personal tendencies push us in other directions.


I reject understanding the economy with an emphasis that under-accounts for the human and social products work. But mostly, I reject trying to comprehend modern economies emphasizing only two classes and without reference to the comparably important coordinator class. I reject as well what is called market socialism and centrally planned socialism – and virtually every serious presentation of socialism that I am aware of, where by serious I mean including specification of allocation – as being, in fact, coordinator ruled economies. I reject democratic centralism, as well, as a form of organization that tends to reproduce coordinator economic dominance as well as political authoritarianism. Indeed, while I think nearly all rank and file advocates of Marxist-conceived socialism have over the years actually wanted to achieve real justice and liberty, I think Marxism itself and even more so Marxism Leninism, are not “the ideology of the working class” but, instead, the ideology of the coordinator class.


This final deduction stares us in the face, it seems to me. Marxism’s concepts obscure the existence of a third class. Leninist strategy employs organizational forms that play into elevating the coordinator class. The economic vision Leninism proposes and has repeatedly arrived at is, in fact, one that inexorably elevates the coordinator class to ruling status. I think Marx himself would make precisely this argument about what is called Marxism and certainly about Marxism Leninism were he alive today, consistently following the same logic and method he would take were he to assess modern political science or neoclassical economics finding them to be ideologies of capital.

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