Q/A on Parecon

(1) Why have you sent messages about your book’s paperback release as ZNet Updates?


Out of frustration and out of hope.


We often send promo for books by our authors…but this is a bit more, you are correct.


There are no ads for the book and few reviews of it. I believe that without the messages we are sending, the paperback’s existence, at least in the U.S., would be virtually unknown.


The audience we are mailing to uses ZNet regularly. ZNet’s politics are an outgrowth of and exist to advocate, among other things, pareconish views and commitments. It seems reasonable that an audience that is overwhelmingly anti-capitalist and concerned with winning a new world, and which likes ZNet, would want to read a work about an economic alternative which is at the root of ZNet and is proposed for society as a whole.


Of course, if this affinity was as true and as strong as we intuit it ought to be, the response rate to these mailings would be enormous…with tens of thousands of the 165,000 ZNet email recipients deciding to get the book to in turn help assess and refine the vision – which, regrettably, has not yet occurred. But you asked my motive, and the fact is I do hope it will occur and it is why I am doing the mailings.



(2) If you want the book to get out widely, why don’t you make it available free? Lots of us can’t afford the $11 it costs, or don’t have access to a local store or a credit card for online purchase.


We can’t make the print edition available free. It is too costly to produce and deliver.


But I have talked to Verso, the book’s publisher, and I am happy to announce that with their blessing we have now placed the entire book online for free access — even as Verso and I are trying to sell copies of the cloth and paper editions, which are, again thanks to Verso, very moderately priced.


You can find Parecon: Life After Capitalism in its entirety at linked from the Parecon book page.


We hope that putting the book online will not only make it available to those who couldn’t otherwise get it, but will also give people who are undecided about buying it an opportunity to view some chapters to decide if they want to read the print edition.


The book is also available for purchase via the Parecon book page which also includes comments, reviews, excerpts, and some interviews and debates:





(3) What is “Parecon”?


“Parecon” is short for participatory economics which is the name of an economic system meant to replace capitalism.


Parecon’s institutions are designed to enhance solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management, while they produce and distribute economic products to meet needs and develop potentials. Parecon is classless.


Parecon’s defining institutions are: (i) federations of workers and consumers councils; (ii) decision-making with each actor having a say proportional to the degree he or she is affected; (iii) income rewarded for duration and intensity of work as well as for hardship undergone while working; (iv) a division of labor that gives each participant a mix of responsibilities conferring comparable empowerment and quality of life while at work; and finally, (v) producers and consumers cooperatively negotiating economic inputs and outputs in light of true social costs and benefits.



(4) Why did you write the book?


To more fully present the vision than the concise paragraph above, and to explore and evaluate the vision’s features and rebut possible concerns.


I think activists need shared economic vision if we are to effectively combat the widespread feeling that there is no alternative to capitalism, and I think lots of people need to be involved in developing and defining such a vision, and I think that if they get out widely, descriptions of parecon can help the process.



(5) The participatory economic model has existed for thirteen years. Why isn’t it better known by now?


It takes time for new perspectives to percolate to audiences and then still more time for the audiences to reach conclusions.


Additionally, there seems to be a widespread movement inclination to avoid issues of vision and long-term strategy. The quantity of serious institutional proposals to replace capitalism, patriarchy, political authoritarianism, or cultural racism, is abysmally low relative to the quantity of analyses about what is wrong with society. In other words, people don’t rush to produce or to read vision and don’t discuss it as a priority.



(6) Are there good reasons why people shy away from institutional vision?


They fear that vision can overstep what we know causing us to adopt views that are unsubstantiated or even false.


They fear that vision can elevate an elite rather than propel explorations by a whole movement.


They fear that vision can promote sectarianism rather than free and flexible innovations.


And finally, they fear that vision will focus on utopian impossibilities, with few implications for the present.



(7) That’s a compelling list. What’s your answer?


I think the list compellingly pinpoints real dangers, which is very helpful. But I also think it proposes incorrect remedies, which is counterproductive.


The useful remedy to our overstepping what our current experience and knowledge justify isn’t to take no steps forward at all, but to step carefully. Rather than avoiding proposing economic vision because we might make mistakes, we should approach it carefully, and encourage the widest possible debate of ensuing proposals.


Similarly, the useful remedy to our being elitist about vision or strategy isn’t to avoid having vision or strategy, but to avoid being elitist. If people who are worried about elitism avoid vision and strategy, then the only people who will pursue it will be people who are not worried about elitism, which is the worst possible scenario. In other words, the alternative to elitism regarding vision and strategy isn’t to avoid vision and strategy, but to ensure that our effort to attain shared vision and strategy are collective and wide rather than individual and narrow.


Likewise, the useful remedy to sectarianism about vision and strategy isn’t to forego shared vision and strategy that could potentially be sectarian, but to share and explore vision and strategy in a non-sectarian manner. And the useful remedy to vision that has no implications, is to develop vision that is well conceived and usefully related to current needs and pressures.


An analogy may help clarify. Suppose lots of people were repeatedly suffering food poisoning. No one would suggest that to avoid this we should all forever forego eating. By not eating we would escape food poisoning, yes, but we would suffer starvation. I think suggesting that we avoid errors, elitism, and sectarianism by not pursuing widely shared long-term vision and strategy is analogously self defeating.



(8) Is there any bias against discussing specifically parecon, beyond the general resistance to vision you mention?


I think there is, but I don’t know how important it is compared to the more general obstacles.


Parecon is a classless vision. It rejects not only private ownership of means of production, but also the monopolization of empowering work in a relatively few hands. Those who like or who greatly benefit from capitalism will tend on average to dislike proposals for reducing their monopoly on productive property. We understand and expect that. Similarly, those who like or who greatly benefit from a corporate division of labor will tend on average to dislike proposals to reduce their monopoly on empowering work. We should understand and expect that too.


Parecon is getting a lot of word of mouth, but at least in the U.S., it is getting very little media visibility. This could be due to general resistance to new ideas or vision, or due to people having doubts about parecon’s viability (though in that case why not present those doubts). But, another possibility is that many leftist publishing venues that we would expect to comment on an anti-capitalist vision, find parecon particularly disturbing. Parecon implies that these venues should adopt self-managed decision making procedures, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and balanced job complexes. There are people running these institutions who don’t want such a transformation and who would rather not even discuss it. They in some cases therefore don’t want to provide parecon a forum for further debate.



(9) Is headway being made?


Yes, quite a lot. Internationally parecon is really only a year or two old, yet it is taking off at a great clip. I do interviews and essays all over, as one indicator, and the book is being translated ten times as widely as my past work.


In the U.S., too, there is growing discussion in activist groups, among students, and so on. But there is also the continuing difficulty in getting public discussion in left media venues. Hopefully that just takes time.



(10) What do you think the response to the book should be? What are you hoping to accomplish?


Some books are about particular areas of concern – a country, a particular part of life, or a period in history. Their audiences will naturally be people who are directly interested in those matters. For books on institutional vision, however, I think everyone seeking a better world should be broadly interested. It isn’t that we should all try to produce proposals for visions of all sides of life, or even that we should all read and discuss at length every proposal to come along. But I do think it is incumbent on critics of existing relations taken as a collective group to learn about visionary proposals, to assess them, and if we feel comfortable with them to adopt them as goals or, if we don’t feel comfortable with them, to reject them for clear reasons. I think as a movement we need to do all this to ensure that our efforts are participatory, democratic, anti sectarian, and geared to attain worthy aims that we can clearly enunciate.


So, with these views, it turns out that even with the escalating distribution of the new book and with the even more widespread use of the online parecon resources, and even with the translations and the discussions in other venues and the 20,000 pages that now turn up in Google searches for parecon, I find myself frustrated. But then again, how could anyone feel other than frustrated at our progress, until we win a new world, that is?


I think the anti-capitalist left should either find parecon wanting and reject it due to being an unworthy vision for going beyond capitalism, or should find it worthy and then advocate it, and while I of course know that either result will take time, not least because the debate should be widespread, I am impatient for it to occur — just like I am impatient for there to be visions proposed and assessed and finally advocated for other domains than economy.



(11) What difference would it make to recruitment if leftists had a shared economic vision?


My view on this may be a bit idiosyncratic, but I think the reason why many people resist invitations to be radical and activist is because they suspect there is no goal that is better than what we endure, and doubt there is any practical road that leads anywhere positive, in any event.


People lead hard lives, and don’t have a lot of free time. They don’t want to be on the side of the angels or to fight the good fight only to lose. They want to make their own lives and the lives of the people they love better – and, yes, when it is plausible, they also want to add to the prospects of peace and justice for all. But most people don’t think it is plausible for them to try to win a better world without knowing what would be better, how we can win it, and why their participation would be significant enough to be worth giving to the project.


So I think if our movements had shared positive vision as well as critique, and if we could enunciate where we are trying to go and why we believe we can get there, and if we could compellingly show people how and why actions they could take in the present will contribute to winning lasting change – many more people would be attracted.



(12) Do you really think having a vision would have such a large recruitment impact? Isn’t the reason people don’t join the left because they have confused images of reality and don’t see current conditions as unjust or oppressive?


If you think the welfare budget is bigger than the defense budget, and you think it is having no good effects, it will certainly skew your views on government spending. And if you think Iraq is about to nuke or gas you, it will certainly affect your views on war and peace. But, while this is true, and while it accounts for some resistance to movement involvement, honestly, no, I wouldn’t describe the overall situation as you do in this question.


I think instead that people who don’t act on behalf of justice will always have some explanation that claims reality is less unjust than it really is. What’s the alternative to their saying that? Are they going to say, hey, I see that society is horrible, unfair, oppressive, unjust, hypocritical, but I am not going to join you in activism anyway? And so, yes, we certainly have to counter the reasons people offer for why tings aren’t so bad or so unjust, sure. But I think these reasons are often largely rationalizations rather than deep-seated confusions. And I think that the additional very important obstacle to people becoming active that causes them to adopt these rationalizations is that people think that nothing better than what we now endure is possible.


Consider, as a bit of evidence for this rather unorthodox position, May 1968 in France.


France, in May of 1968, went into a gigantic turmoil in which large sectors of the population were acting in a revolutionary way. A few months before this truly stupendous upwelling of activity, France was comparatively quiet. A few months after the tumultuous events, France was relatively quiet again. What happened?


Was it that in March and April people learned all kinds of new things about reality and this corrected their confusions about oppressions so they suddenly saw injustice clearly and as a result rebelled, and that then in June and July they somehow lost all that new knowledge, somehow siphoned out of their minds, so they fell back into confusion and relative passivity?


Or was it that some mixture of events generated hope leading into May, which overcame cynicism and fueled the momentous upsurge, and that then, in June, the hope dissipated in turn dissipating the activism?


If we think the latter is a more compelling explanation of what occurred, that is that the obstacle that is banished when there is tumultuous activism is cynicism and doubt, then it seems to me that movements have to spend considerably more time addressing doubts about efficacy as compared to making a case that the world around us is unjust. That doesn’t mean we should do no critiques of the world we now endure, and provide no rebuttal of lies and confusions. But it does mean we should find a new ratio between analysis of current ills and presenting positive vision and strategy. We should increase the volume of the latter elements.


I hope readers will agree that vision and strategy need attention, and will for that reason consider getting a copy of Parecon to help evaluate the model, improve it, and finally reject or advocate what results. And that is why these mailings have gone out.



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