[First presented at the 2008 Gateway Greens Roundtable; Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri; June 29, 2008]
In this presentation, I’ll briefly discuss the structure of corporations, how that’s related to markets and what I think is wrong with markets, and an economic model called "participatory economics", which I think can replace them both.
Corporations — particularly those transnational corporations with limited liability and rights of personhood — pose a great threat, perhaps the greatest threat, to the environment and to the future of this planet. Examples are legion: Exxon-Mobil and global warming, Georgia-Pacific and rampant clear-cutting, Shell Oil and oil extraction, General Electric and the nuclear industry, and (relevant to St. Louis) Monsanto and GMOs. To be sure, corporations are not the only threat to our shared natural environment, but I think any comprehensive effort to save the planet must include as a plank stopping these corporations, indeed wiping out corporate power altogether, lest we face irreversible catastrophe.
Some people may agree that it’s a necessary action to take, but not one which is very realistic. Let me remind everyone that what’s deemed "realistic" can change, perhaps very dramatically. Ask anyone who helped bring down the Seattle World Trade Organization ministerial in 1999, or who helped stop (as I know firsthand) FCC-led media concentration in 2003, or any of a number of similar efforts which were dismissed as "unrealistic". Of course they were unrealistic, but that doesn’t mean the efforts to widen the cause of social and environmental justice can’t advance, sometimes beyond the realm of "realism".
The goal of this presentation is likewise "unrealistic": To map out a strategy against corporate power, and hopefully all the negative significant environmental ramifications of corporate power, using as its lynchpin the economic model known as "parecon", participatory economics.
For the purposes of this presentation, let me define a corporation to be a legal and economic entity with the goal of ever-increasing levels of short-term profit for its shareholders at the expense of everything else — human health, labor rights, and our shared natural environment. Admittedly, not all entities called "corporations", either now or in the past, were like this or obeyed this mandate, but our focus is those corporations which pose a grave environmental threat, and which do follow this mandate. So let us restrict our definition accordingly.
Because of the disproportionate power that corporations wield, political activists and even entire activist movements have been increasingly directing their energies to combating corporations, with some success. Still, those successes have thus far been limited, and are constantly under threat of being rolled back. Yet why, despite the abundance of energetic campaigns and movements against corporations, have there been limits to success and a constant threat of rollback? There are a number of reasons to be sure, some of which have gained greater attention than others, but let me submit one crucial reason: that the wider economic context in which corporations survive and thrive itself remains in place. The context I’m referring to here is the economic institution of markets.
The Market Connection to Corporate Power
For our purposes, I emphasize the competitive nature of markets in this definition of markets: an institution of buyers and sellers where buyers and sellers are pitted against one another in a zero-sum game; that is, someone gains at the expense of someone else’s loss, and vice-versa. Granted, it is possible to gain money and power in markets without doing so at the expense of someone else, or where both parties can gain, but it is clearly also possible (and common) to succeed in markets by taking metaphorical candy from a metaphorical baby.
Since winning is obviously better than losing, and since one can gain at the expense of others in a market, it makes sense to behave in a brutish fashion in a market — to always behave in a way that would take advantage of others. That is, it’s rational to become a monster, or exhibit behavior like that of a monster, in a market. One rational response in this context is to fight fire with fire, and become a monster in response. Then it becomes a matter of monsters fighting other monsters. And the bigger the monster, the better the chance to win.
And that’s where corporations come in. A corporation can be thought of as the equivalent of a monster in a market economy, and in a competitive context it makes sense to develop into a monster to win those competitions. (This also explains, I think, why markets tend to consolidate — amid competition, participants are eliminated through buyout or attrition or both, so that there are fewer players in the game, and markets as a result wind up concentrating.)
Since markets serve as spawning grounds and as a source of strength for corporations, proposals which incorporate markets in their vision, I think, are inevitably flawed. Provisions can be put in place to mitigate the negative effects of markets, just as we see in present-day efforts to oppose corporations, but corporations have a powerful incentive to fight back, and they also have the muscle thanks to the zero-sum predilection of markets to win a lot of their fights.
So I say, if you oppose corporations, oppose markets. If you want to abolish corporations, abolish markets. But that’s only half the battle. After all, you can give an articulate critique that eating meat is bad, but you still need to eat, and if you don’t offer an alternative of what to do instead, you’re still left with the old way of doing things. So if you get rid of markets, what do you put in its place instead to address economic needs, and how do you know that its replacement won’t also be horrible?
A Modest Proposal: Abolish Corporate Power By Means Of Parecon
In 1991, Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel published two books which introduced an economic model known as "parecon", participatory economics. Parecon seeks to address the flaws of both markets and command economies. In brief, the model seeks to promote the values of solidarity, efficiency, equity, diversity, self-management, and environmental protection.
There are four main institutions parecon uses to promote these values: (1) All jobs are balanced for desirability and empowerment. (2) Remuneration is determined by effort and sacrifice in socially-valued labor as gauged by one’s workmates. (3) Economic decisions are made by decision-making bodies comprising those who work in a workplace or consume in a residence, where those who are impacted by a decision have decision-making power proportional to the degree they’re impacted by that decision. (4) A participatory planning procedure addresses allocation, where consumption or production plans are submitted, with the help of a facilitation mechanism, to those who are impacted by those plans, and revised if necessary by those who made those plans in a series of rounds based on assorted qualitative and quantitative feedback.
I submit that parecon can also be the economic mechanism to abolish corporations because I believe that corporations cannot survive in a participatory economy. A participatory economy is anathema to everything comprising a corporation.
Corporations bear job hierarchies, whereas participatory economics requires jobs balanced for desirability and empowerment (what the model refers to as "balanced job complexes").
Corporations pay unfair wages and make decisions that (often negatively) affect those outside of the corporation with little say in those decisions; parecon, by definition, pays more fairly and strives to provide more fair decision-making power to its participants
Corporations rely on an external market to gain strength and prominence on a macro-scale and to maintain its hierarchical control and dominance on a micro-scale. Parecon does not use markets, but rather participatory planning for the shared goal of eliminating excess demand. As a result, I think it’s hard for sharks to swim in an ocean that’s been utterly drained.
But even if parecon does abolish environmental-destroying corporations, does a participatory economy help protect the environment rather than become another devil we oppose? I think so. The quantitative data in participatory planning include indicative costs on the environment. Actions that have greater environmental impacts bear greater costs in the economy rather than those in other economic models which tend to ignore such costs. Those who bear such environmental costs also possess decision-making power in proportion to their degree of impact, so they have the means in addition to the motivation to act.
Next Steps and the Montesi Maneuver
While participatory economics might beat markets and corporations and command-planning hands down in the theory department, that translates into little alone in any progress in real-world efforts. Assuming it’s what we want, how do we get it? One response is to use "non-reformist reforms" — aiming activist efforts in the here and now for tangible current reforms, but not stopping at winning those reforms for their own sake (even though they might be very important). Instead, the idea is to use those reforms as stepping stones towards larger aims, in this case towards achieving a participatory economy.
Such an approach can gain wider traction if they can widen their involvement and be aligned with other current movements for positive social change, like those already underway against corporations on a host of issues, including the environment. These two efforts — advocates for participatory economics and activism against corporate power — have had little in common, but I think they stand to gain tremendously from one another. The anti-corporate efforts [generally] don’t take an oppositional stance against markets, so I think they stand vulnerable to corporate empires striking back. But opposition to markets is well-nigh impossible without answering the question: "What economic system do you advocate instead?". And in return parecon-aligned efforts can gain a whole new base of support and alliances that they didn’t have before.
In effect, I’m proposing a "merger" of sorts of anti-corporate efforts and those aligned with participatory-economics. I call this the Montesi Maneuver, named for a family of clergy in American graphic novels in the 1980s who found a similar "merger" against another alignment of destructive forces.
Whether or not this Montesi Maneuver or other such maneuvers or "mergers" or even whole efforts will succeed is unclear, but what I think is clear is that such combinations of previously unrelated ideas or activist movements will be useful, perhaps necessary, in our quest to oppose and abolish corporate power, save the environment, or even higher still, to be "realistic".