This is part four of a six part interview. It deals mostly with issues of vision and strategy and their role in winning change. As to the other parts, they will be linked, below, as they are published…
Thoughts & Deeds 1: Revolution
Thoughts & Deeds 2: Perspectives
Thoughts & Deeds 3: Participatory Economics
Thoughts & Deeds 4: Winning
Thoughts & Deeds 5: Organization
Thoughts and Deeds 6: Venezuela, Media, Music…
Changing gears a bit, you often say you think vision and strategy should be shared widely – what does that mean?
If each person seeking social change is going to be a thinking, feeling, contributor to the process of winning social change, then they each need to have opinions about what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and where it is headed. If they don’t have that knowledge, they are like soldiers in battle – following orders in an important pursuit, but without real understanding and influence. This is bad enough for soldiers, but for a movement seeking to create a classless society in which people collectively self manage outcomes, it is deadly.
The trip from who we all are now, due to our habits, prejudices, limited awareness, etc., to who we would be in a worthy, classless economy and society is going to be difficult and long. If our own movements, by their composition and practice, reinforce our current repressive patterns rather than nurturing and advancing the new patterns needed in the future, we won’t get far.
There is a slogan that we need to plant the seeds of the future in the present. But you can’t do that if you have no notion what the future needs to include. We seek a project that is itself participatory as a condition of attaining a participatory future. But folks cannot participate meaningfully unless they have a good grip on guiding vision and strategy. And to participate people need to take initiative, something that is foreign and scary for many people.
Many people seem to think theory is handy but not that crucial. In your view, what’s the purpose of it exactly? “What’s theory got to do with it”, to paraphrase Tina Turner.
Social theory is about identifying recurring patterns in historical and social relations, and the factors most responsible for them. We seek These patterns to be able to examine new circumstances and have at least reasonable confidence that we can predict how acts we undertake might most likely effect them.
Still, we have to acknowledge that even the best theories, even when brilliantly utilized, are not mistake-proof. For example, whatever variables we think are operative, and however well we might understand their dynamics, it is always at least conceivable that other variable, that we aren’t considering, could mitigate or even reverse expected outcomes. This possibility, however, becomes less and less significant the more we are discussing broad patterns of well understood defining relations and factors – and so that is where theory comes into its own.
To clarify that a bit, the last point is about the difference between predicting what some choice for an event or action will yield very proximately (when there are innumerable significant factors at work) – and predicting, say, the major implications of some large scale and long term commitment (in which the many factors create fluctuations, to be sure, but the main trends are overwhelmingly due to a few key variables).
As a specific example, it is like the difference between trying to predict the weather two weeks from Tuesday, on the one hand, and trying to predict abiding trends in average climate over a period of years or decades on the other hand. At first glance it may seem that predicting weather just two weeks ahead, and just in your city, would be much easier than predicting long term patterns years of even decades into the future, and for a whole country, or even for the whole planet. In fact, though, the short run local prediction is harder.
Predicting the implications of some near term activist action is about as problematic as predicting weather a week or two ahead and, indeed, leftist theorists may be as bad at predicting the outcome of proximate choices – like, not going to the back of the bus when told to do so – as meteorologists are bad at predicting next Tuesday’sweather. On the other hand, as good as climate scientists may be at predicting longer run patterns of climate change and the impact of choices on it, left theorists may be as good or in some cases even better at predicting long term implications of new institutional choices.
Still, trying to be true to evidence and logic – and to assemble what we learn by our investigations into choices of concepts that we can use and into anticipated typical relations among them we should have in mind – which is what social theory does – is incredibly better than the alternative, which is just winging it.
Does theory have to be hard and be written like an alien language, as it often is?
Theory that is meant to inform activism, vision, and strategy, does not require, and I would say does not gain from being academic and obscure. Teasing from the world insights we use to identify key defining aspects and their interrelations and then giving those some name by which we can refer to them, doesn’t require obscurity. If we could analyze social relations to incredible depth, with wondrous accuracy of prediction, then it might. But, at the levels that we can analyze, given current human comprehension of ourselves and our institutional settings, and at the level we can say and even need to say things, there is simply no need for academic obscurity.
Less obvious but no less important, we are not seeking a body of concepts and their relations to use to assess questions about society, that can be successfully used only by people trained for the purpose for years and years, and operating in quiet libraries. We need a body of concepts and a catalog of their typical relations that normal people who have given some time to becoming facile with the materials but who have not trained for years and years, can use to guide their thoughts and actions in the circumstances they daily encounter – which means in the quiet of their own room, or in a meeting, or while in the midst of a social struggle.
Can you give an example of why a particular theory or concept that you advocate, matters – how it affects what the left does?
Briefly, the conceptual toolbox I find useful is a set of concepts identifying what I believe are core spheres of social life – polity, economy, culture, kinship – and their central institutions and main role offerings that people must relate to, plus additional concepts that pinpoint the kinds of relations among all those, in different times and places, plus an additional broad, flexible, toolbox of understandings of the broad typical implications of activist options and how to think about their use in different settings. Actually, this is what the book Occupy Theory, part of a trilogy called Fanfare for the Future, is about.
This viewpoint affects what I see in the world, and how I understand it, and thus what I think ought to be done in different situations and at different times to attain lasting gains and a better world. And that is what any framework should do for anyone adopting it.
Let’s hear a specific example.
Specifics are specifics, and not timeless. I will try to give, however, an overarching example or two of specifics that have more general relevance.
First, with theory for the most part you will always be looking at institutional factors, not at the choices of particular individuals. This isn’t iron clad, but it is pretty close. It is like the question earlier about being anti coordinator, or anti coordinatorism. Without concepts that explain the typical attitudes and behaviors of the coordinator class as a whole, then, like most people, you just won’t like and may hate the arrogance and holier than thou stances of your doctor, lawyer, or manager. But you are likely to miss more subtle but no less important dynamics behind the behaviors you don’t like, and, in any event, you may think that the issue is human greed, or something like that, rather than a set of institutions that impose a certain attitudes and behaviors.
The distinction in how you are likely to look at coordinator-ish events and behaviors will also exist if you do have theory, but your theory says there are only two key classes – workers and owners – and nothing else worth highlighting. Such concepts would obscure even the existence of the coordinator class. When we try to explain things, if those are the only conceptual tools in our arsenal, we won’t highlight much less understand the obscured coordinator class dynamics. If our concepts highlight those dynamics, however, the reverse will hold. In trying to understand economic relations and prospects, we will always keep the coordinator class in mind.
That might still be considered a bit vague. Can you make it a bit more specific please?
Workers take over a workplace. The capitalist was going to leave and sell it, but the workers occupied it and began operating it. Now suppose, as often occurs in such situations, the managers, engineers, and other coordinator class members all left when the capitalist did, preferring to seek work for some other capitalist, rather then to stay in what appeared to them to be a dying organization.
The workers, however, have nowhere to go. They hold on. They keep operating. But they also enact changes. They establish a workers council to make all overarching decisions in a democratic manner, perhaps even in a self managing manner. They equalize or in any event they make equitable, in all their eyes, levels of payment. However, beyond those changes, let’s say they keep the old division of labor in place.
They need a person to handle finances, and one of the workers very hesitantly volunteers – a working class person who has great relations with all the others in the workplace – to do that work for the good of the project. She has to learn many things – perhaps even to read, and certainly has to learn the concepts of accounting, how to use the computer and software, how to function effectively at meetings, etc.
Six months later, the workplace has been churning out goods, successfully, but in the words of those doing all that work, all the old rot of alienated circumstance is steadily returning. People then typically blame the individuals occupying empowering positions – we should have chosen them better. Or they blame human nature – Margaret Thatcher was right, there is no alternative.
The joy of collectivity, equity, and participation was real at the outset, but was short lived, because, they sadly conclude, human nature and organizational requirements just precluded operating like that for a long time. We got rid of the owners, they think. We instituted democracy. Maybe we even instituted self management. We made wages just. We learned what we needed to know to produce, and have been doing so, successfully. Yet, as far as the quality of our workday experience and wage disparities and influence of some people running the show and others obeying and going home at day’s end to escape, we are falling back into all the old patterns we hoped to escape. It must be human nature. And, this account is not hypothetical, I encountered all the above, talking with representatives from occupied factories in Argentina, for example.
Okay, so what difference would applying the concepts you propose have made?
If these folks had had concepts that pinpointed how having a corporate division of labor, even without private ownership, leads inexorably to a minority dominating decisions and accruing excessive income, they would have predicted the result they were suffering. They would have moved toward and finally replaced the corporate division of labor with balanced job complexes. That would in turn have eliminated the basis for a coordinator class rule of the workplace – especially if they could also guard against the imposition of market pressures. There would have been no depressing belief that human nature consigns us to economic alienation and class rule.
The above steps wouldn’t have required some giant leap of intelligence, but would have been very natural easy to see steps, once the concepts were available to those involved.
At the risk of falling into repetition and unoriginality… another example?
This example is more accepted, nowadays, by at least a large proportion of leftists. If your views of history and society say that economics is at the foundation of everything, then when you see racism and sexism, you will try to understand them firstly – maybe even only – in terms of economic class relations. If your concepts instead point you to the parallel, entwined, and comparable importance of economics, polity, culture, and kinship, you will instead look for the most basic dynamics of racism and sexism in institutions in those spheres, and then also understand how the existence of racism and sexism alter economic relations and, in turn, are altered by economic relations.
This stuff isn’t arcane minutiae for page 87 of an academic study. Instead, it matters immensely to daily movement choices – and the only reason to dress it up in high falutin language suitable to page 87 of an academic study is to keep it away from most folks and make it appear that those in possession of the relevant concepts are some kind of advanced species, rather than just folks, like other folks, sometimes possessing very useful insights, other times weighed down with concepts that are misleading or wrong, or that leave out critical factors.
In the same way, why does the particular vision you propose, participatory society, and within it, participatory economics, matter?
With vision, the idea is to not only say what we want but to show that it is worthy and viable, and to have the formulation of it generate desire and hope, and inform choices among everyday citizens. If we need to plant the seeds of the future in the present so that our efforts take us where we want to go – well, without vision we can’t do that. What attributes must our movement organizations have, if they are to combat existing relations and attract and retain support and members, and finally melt into the operations of a new society? How can you know the answer unless you have some ideas about that sought after society? And the same goes for projects we establish. Without vision, we just don’t know, and especially we don’t share as a basis for collective action, even an idea of the most central features of a better future.
No one would say to someone wanting to build some big project – say a hotel – that you shouldn’t bother to know, in advance, the key things about what you are seeking to achieve. No one would say, you should just decide to build it, pull up the heavy equipment, and then charge ahead, doing whatever seems desirable to you while standing in the open field where the building will hopefully wind up. No one would say you should get going with every team that is working on it doing their own thing, unconnected to what others are doing. It is utterly absurd, of course. But the same goes for the much larger and more complex problem of reaching a better society. It is true that you should not have a blueprint so detailed and so specific and so deeply celebrated that you are blind to contrary lessons that emerge during the process of building, but you certainly do need to have vision.
But you feel there are leftists who say similar things regarding the new society project?
Exactly. There are many on the left who say we have to be so flexible that we ought to reject vision entirely. We should just act – and, they say, our actions will yield what we can enjoy. Well, the sad truth is that actions, say the Bolshevik choices, or the choices of the workers in the earlier discussed occupied workplace example where they kept the old division of labor, can even succeed in being implemented and yet not create outcomes we can enjoy, and can even block such desirable outcomes – against everyone’s hopes.
Why? Because whether it is willful due to unworthy values (I think the Bolshevik case at the level of the leaders) or it occurs spontaneously and without any intent to have the ill effects but instead stems from using impoverished concepts despite wonderful aspirations (the workers occupying the factory and most of the rank and file beneath the Bolsheviks, too), ill informed actions can yield horrible results.
So what we actually need is not only theory, as mentioned above, but a kind of minimalist but also maximalist vision. That is, our vision should carefully address not everything about future relations but just the minimum set of features of a new society that we must implement if the new society is to fulfill the values we aspire to – say, self management, solidarity, etc. – and yet also it should be maximalist in that the values we pursue in the vision are those we really do seek, and the list of features the vision includes are, though as few and as broad as possible, what is essential to future people actually living in accord with those values.
Hmm that might feel somewhat abstract. Here we go again but… can you give some examples? It helps to picture things in one’s mind…
There is a reason I tend to prefer abstract and more general formulations to examples. An example is just an example. If you encounter the identical situation, I suppose, even without generalizing its lessons, An example could be relevant. But what typically matters is not each example but general insights we can draw based on thinking about many examples. You remember I said one of the benefits of theory was that we move from thinking about individual people in some situation to institutions that cause people, on average, to be highly likely to act certain ways? There is something perhaps broadly analogous, though quite a bit less obvious, going on in your wanting examples, and in my instead wanting to provide more general, abstract – meaning not rooted in very specific conditions – lessons.
Theory, and for that matter insight, isn’t a stack of facts. What ultimately matters – unless we are literally concerned with some particular individual situation explicitly described in the fact stack, is insights, lessons, and tools that can inform behavior in new situations. So I always gravitate from examples, quickly, to general lessons or insights, and indeed, why I offer examples only to clarify the lessons, provide some evidence for them, etc.
I get it, but I still would like specific examples, if you don’t mind…
Okay, I thought I did that already, but, again, here is an example of vision’s importance. To plant seeds of the future in the present, the Parecon vision attunes us to the need to utilize self managing decision making, to establish balanced job complexes, and to apportion benefits justly in any project we undertake or organization we create. It has implications for other spheres of life, as well. It also attunes us to the importance of gearing our strategic messages and actions to welcome and empower working class people and not to instead aim at enlisting coordinator class members at the expense of a practice that repels working people. And again, it has similar lessons for other constituencies from other spheres of life.
Similarly, the participatory society vision can also help us formulate demands that actually move us closer to our ultimate aims. Thus bearing on distribution of income, for example, demands that don’t just alleviate poverty, say – of course a good thing to do – but that begin to convey the legitimacy of remunerating only for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valuable labor. And it isn’t just about demands, per se, but even more so, about what one says and does when pursuing demands. How do we approach decision making in any sphere of life – demanding more avenues of participation, reducing the power of money, and so on, and do it in ways that legitimate and even begin to pursue the idea of self management?
Compelling shared vision can assist addressing pretty much any area of concern – social relations like daycare, or cultural relations, ecological rules, and so on. And most broadly, it can also allow us to answer the question put to us by those we seek to radicalize – which is, what do you want? – in ways that can overcome people’s skepticism about there being any way to organize society other than what we currently suffer.
If vision and particularly this vision is so important, why don’t more people work on vision, and if parecon and parsoc are themselves worthy and viable vision, why aren’t they the center of a lot more discussion and then, perhaps, a lot more action? What are the barriers to developing models bearing on community, polity and kinship? A matter of resources? A matter of inclination?
I wish I knew for sure the answers to these concerns, but the best I can do is guess.
Regarding contributing to vision per se, I suspect there are two impediments. First, people feeling inadequate to the task, fearing they will make mistakes, fearing they will propose something flawed. But while this may be a factor – and again, I am just guessing – it doesn’t explain not even paying attention to vision that arises from other people’s efforts.
When we talk about contributing to vision, we are largely talking about people writing about vision, giving talks about it, or assessing it, again in text or words. That is largely missing. So on the one hand, fear of getting it wrong, perhaps even of appearing dumb or naïve, probably plays a role. At the same time, there are so many other things to write about where you don’t have to worry about messing up. You can be very confident writing about, or giving a talk about, what is wrong with society. We have all become masters of disasters. Left writers are very competent at explaining horrible occurrences. So, perhaps people gravitate that way, and not toward vision – or strategy for that matter – out of fear of being wrong and appearing dumb, on the one hand, and even more so out of confidence of being right and appearing smart, on the other hand. I have actually heard just this explanation, regarding their own choices, from quite a number of people.
Second, people are busy and often think, I have to do this and that with my political activity – work on some campaign, etc. Why should I give time that is in such short supply to vision? I won’t.
The trouble with this explanation, I think, is that it doesn’t have much weight taken all by itself. It instead rests on an assumption, I think, which is that paying attention to vision won’t aid short term efforts by giving clarity, by giving context, etc., nor will it do much to attain long term aims, either. So in this case we are explaining not realizing the importance of vision by a reason that assumes people don’t realize (or deny) the importance of vision. Still, in real situations, somehow this version does play a big role.
Third, there is another factor at work in parallel with the first two, and perhaps, I suspect, providing their foundation. If you don’t really believe, deep down, that we have much chance to win a new world, then why should you take the time to write or talk about what ought to be its key defining features? If you believe that kind of change is beyond us, or way, way, way off in the future, at best, then you can reasonably conclude – with very little need for a lot of thought about it – that it is better to talk about what is wrong with the world we inhabit and to urge immediate action now, in hopes that some modest benefits may arise.
Yes, that kind of view has certainly crossed my mind at times, and I would guess it has for most people on the left. Do you think that last cause is strong?
I think it may be strongest of all, and literally fueling the others.
Consider a thought experiment. Suppose that next week Syriza, the Bolivarian party in Venezuela, Die Linke in Germany, and some others unify into an international organization for, let’s say they call it participatory socialism. More, almost every serious left writer and commentator and activist in country after county decides to join the effort. More, the new organization declares the priority need to arrive at shared vision and strategy to unify dissent and guide its own practice for reasons like those we have been discussing. Now what?
I suspect all those around the world who noticed this and saw the momentum and began to feel that this could lead to something immense and important, would pay close attention to the call to arrive at shared vision and strategy and would start discussing associated ideas. At the same time, I suspect that all those doubting the effort would go anywhere significant would either ignore it, or if they wanted to join just to not appear to be anti-left, or for some kind of organizational benefit, or whatever, but they did not believe in real success, would keep attending to issues of what is wrong in the world and immediate actions, while still ignoring issues of what we want and how to get it, and longer term concerns.
If that is true, it tends to suggest that believing in positive prospects – whether we have already got this massive organizational effort, or not – is key to left motivations and choices. And honestly, how could it not be?
All the above is about vision in general, but I’m curious about your experiences regarding parecon, in particular. How do left activists react to parecon? Why is parecon, in particular, not more visibly discussed and supported?
I think there is a fourth factor at work with the particular vision called participatory economics. Parecon is a carefully thought through vision. One can address it by assessing it – reading from materials that are widely available – and deciding if one likes it, seeing why, reporting why one may not like it, and so on. So what is the additional factor that precludes these steps for many folks?
Well, I believe one factor is a subtle – rarely blatant – kind of class interest. Suppose you run a left media project, or any left project, for that matter, or you relate to folks who hold positions like that. Parecon will likely disturb you because it says our projects, institutions, etc., ought to have self management for all involved. They ought to have equitable remuneration for all involved – for duration, intensity, and onerousness of work. They ought to have balanced job complexes for everyone involved.
And it follows that if parecon were to become a preponderant commitment of leftists – then left projects and institutions would be under pressure to carefully and patiently – but nonetheless forthrightly and without perpetual excuses – incorporate these kinds of features.
This will seem, in most cases, to those who currently run such operations, like a horrible idea. They have long felt they can as president or publisher or whatever, and by their unusual will and commitment and creativity, make these efforts productive and valuable, but worry that to have everyone participate fairly in decisions, much less to have balanced job complexes, where they must do a fair share of un-empowering labor despite their greater experience, would lead to disaster. They believe have the wherewithal to lead, but doubt that others do.
Do you believe it’s them just defending their advantages? Or am I assuming the worst, and are there other reasons?
These are not rich people. They have advantages inside their operations, yes, you could say that, but they also do shoulder a whole lot of tension-inducing responsibility and in many cases work as hard, and sometimes harder, than others.
No, I think their reaction is most often sincere – but, I would say, wrong headed. The reaction says the immediate detriment I anticipate from my having to have less power and others, less experienced than myself, having more – and that is real – outweighs any long run benefits of the change. Now if you don’t believe there are many long run benefits – that is, if you don’t see balanced job complexes as a component of what we are fighting for, and if you don’t buy that it is needed to attain classlessness, or if you don’t actually care about classlessness per se, in any case, or reject it, then the calculus follows. Whereas, if you did believe in those benefits, the calculus would not follow. So the way class interests might enter the decisions is not in these folks assessing the short run situation of where they work and trying to defend it for personal gain, but in their view of the long run implications of change.
At any rate, I think such folks, trying to do good for their projects, pretty much reflexively don’t even acknowledge that parecon exists. They don’t criticize it – because that could engender discussion that might take a turn they don’t like. So instead, they just keep silent about it. They don’t run interviews, articles, or even book reviews – nothing. They get these, and reject them, and honestly believe they are doing so because they have so much other stuff, and vision doesn’t matter much anyhow, and parecon must be idiotic (without, in fact, having looked), and so on. And that has been the overwhelming experience to date, with very few exceptions, among alternative media regarding parecon.
Maybe they just think the parecon perspective is just… well to put it in a colloquial way, someone tripping balls, and should just be ignored. No offense meant.
I think that that is likely superficially true of most of them. But it is also true that none who ignore it are in fact willing to say that, or to have any content in their media that says that, and on the face of it, it would be a pretty hard thing to claim such a thing without evidence, yet they do. Indeed, when asked why they have no coverage about parecon, no reviews, no interviews, no articles, nothing – they say they get tons of submissions and it is just an accident that reviews of books on parecon get rejected every time, often within minutes of when they are emailed in. It is just an accident that interviews aren’t undertaken, even when regular writers suggest doing one, or when they are submitted. And ditto for supportive or even critical articles. Parecon has been around, highly visible other than the absent alternative media coverage, for roughly 25 years.
Can you give us some names of people or institutions that have done this, ignore vision or parecon in particular? What do we do about it?
Well, vision is essentially ignored, certainly relative to what is needed – and often entirely – by left media almost all over. As for parecon, just list all the outlets, and the odds are you will find it is ignored, or very nearly so, in most or even all those you list. Even when New Left Books published the book titled Parecon: Life After Capitalism, there was no review or discussion or excerpt or anything in New Left Review, itself, the associated magazine, nor was there at any other time. The book was barely kept in print, as well, despite selling really well at the outset, and that destroyed the momentum it initially had.
Name names? It seems a bit crude, but, in the U.S., what about the Nation, The Progressive, In These Times, Democracy Now, Mother Jones, and so on?
In these, and other cases, for a period of over two and a half decades, there has been nearly – or more often exactly – nothing. No critique, no discussion. There is silence on parecon, and also very little, I think evidence would show though I have not, myself, done any explicit accounting of it, on serious vision of any kind, meaning on formulations of institutional alternatives. And yet vision should be not an after thought but a priority concern of all these venues.
Have you considered that maybe even if vision is needed, parecon and parsoc might just not cut it? Perhaps those who ignore this vision do so because they have looked at it and feel it is not useful? Like you probably ignore lots of things due to time constraints or just because it makes you go “huh”?
Even if Parecon and Parsoc formulations were terribly flawed, which is certainly conceivable and whether it is true or not, is something many would initially think – the idea that there is nothing worth criticizing, even, in the parecon viewpoint, seems preposterous to me. But, nonetheless, I have certainly considered that having that view may be the explanation for many people ignoring it. And I even have no doubt that some people making decisions at various of the venues would say, yes, of course, that is why we ignore it – it is idiotic. They wouldn’t say it to me, no one has, but to you, perhaps, if asked. Nor would they write it, and debate, not the media folks who make the decisions about what appears and what doesn’t. But, then if they said it to you, personally, say at a party or something, and you went on to ask them, well, okay, what is so vacuous or wrong about parecon, they would have no answer or one, at best, based on something they heard from someone else, but involving no real thought of their own.
If parecon is so off the wall – an old expression meaning completely out to lunch, in turn an old expression meaning so totally idiotic it isn’t even worth saying why – then surely someone should be able to give some evidence, when asked.
But even beyond that, on the left, thinking that something is wrong, particularly something that is offered by someone reasonably prominent, is generally a call to arms for writers to blast away showing just how smart they are, on the one hand, and clearing away dross, on the other hand. But no – instead, there is silence.
Okay my turn now to go… Huh? Silence?
Okay, you are right, I want to qualify that comment just a bit. If you go to ZNet there is a debate section and there are many entries are me debating with others about vision and parecon. But if you look, you will see that none of these are with people particularly prominent in the U.S. left, none are with folks who are responsible for left projects and media, and none, or few at any rate, have been published, other than on ZNet and in some cases, in Z print, too.
Has anyone told you the reason for their own lack of feedback?
Yes, I have often contacted folks in left media and heard them say it has nothing to do with Parecon itself, it is just they don’t have space, time, etc. etc. But I do a web site – ZNet and ZCommunications – and even as they say it, they know that I know it is not a real explanation. There are no space limits. It doesn’t take long to accept an article.
Well they might not have told you directly, but you must have picked up echoes through other channels as to why, given that you know a lot of people on the left…
Yes, often, folks I know will say I was at a party and so and so was railing at how crazy you are, and how silly parecon is but there was no real substance – how come? And I then have to try to explain.
Or someone will tell me I submitted a review or I asked to do an interview, or whatever, and no one replied other than to reject, and they did so almost immediately, and I just don’t get it – why? And again, I have to try to explain.
Has anyone who initially gave you that treatment ever admitted to the reasons you presented?
People who have no influence in media, yes, in many cases. But regarding media attention, there is a particular story that is, I think, quite instructive about all this, or so it seemed to me, at any rate. A prominent British activist and writer, also involved in media per se, Milan Rai, attended a set of sessions Z hosted – a kind of retreat I guess you might call it – with I think it was perhaps thirty people from around the world attending to talk about vision and strategy and brainstorm together about possible ways forward. It was quite awhile ago. Milan was there.
After I gave a talk about parecon and we were on a break, he came over to me and asked if we could speak for a bit. He said he wanted to apologize. I had no idea what he was referring to, and said so. Milan then explained that he had had a disturbing realization. For years he had taken for granted – that was what he had told himself he was doing, at any rate – that parecon was just nonsense and therefore worth no attention. What he had realized, on hearing a pretty in-depth presentation at the retreat, and questions and answers, and so on, was not just that he had been wrong about it being nonsense, and that he now found parecon quite compelling. Rather, he said he realized that what had caused him to take that earlier stance, without even reading a presentation of parecon’s features and logic, and without even knowing much about it, much less seriously considering its claims and logic, was class interest. Parecon, he now saw, was contrary to coordinator class type values and advantages, and he realized he had both, and he realized he had been, in the past, sufficiently attuned to know that this vision was trouble for those views.
That’s pretty unusual I’d think. He told you that, just like that?
Yes, and I was very impressed that Milan had not only seen clear to perceive that, but that he was also willing to report it, and I very much appreciated that he did so. I do think his initial reaction was not an isolated case, but pretty general. I suspect that among those who, like Milan, are somewhat or are very prominent on the left, especially running media or other projects with internal structure and where they feel great responsibility to do good work, Parecon strikes them, even on just hearing a little about it, as anathema, and rather than admit the deepest reason for that view, probably even to themselves, they simply fall back on assuming it must be stupid. If you think a corporate division of labor and coordinator class advantages are okay or even optimal – or you are oblivious to them because they just seem inevitable, say, which is class consciousness at work – then obviously something that dismisses all that, you will think you know without even looking, must be dumb.
Have you ever considered that perhaps some people believe that you might be considered fundamentalist or even sectarian, rather than the issue being those who are ignoring Parecon?
Perhaps, but I debate or otherwise explore the issues of parecon, and parsoc too, with pretty much anyone, anytime. I invite people to offer criticisms, and I make their critical comments visible, publicly, often much to people’s surprise. And I do it not by going on the attack against people for their life choices, but by making arguments, offering examples, etc. You can check for yourself. There are plenty of such exchanges on ZNet.
In contrast, people typically dismiss parecon with personal anger and attacks, even as I or others defend it, offering arguments. I may be wrong, but I am not fundamentalist about it.
I asked what people can do?
The problem is not just those who actively or by neglect cause a relative lack of visibility of vision in alternative media, and of parecon, or the less developed aspects of parsoc, as one such vision. The problem is, also, the audience, so to speak. And that is where something could be done. People could write letters, write blog posts, write comments on content, to all kinds of media about wanting to see discussion and exploration of alternatives. Absent that, absent – pressure for more – it is unlikely to happen. Even when someone in media does see clear to understands the personal and collective dynamics, assuming I am right, then what does that person do? Does he or she buck the trends? There are actually costs, in relations to others, perhaps in audience, in visibility, etc. If audiences were demanding visionary content, however, then that media person could do positive things. Similarly, people could write actual essays about vision, parecon and others, about their merits and debits, and about reactions to them as well, and submit. But upon getting rejected, people could say, hold on – why…and if it has no logic, no basis, could make a fuss.
Or consider regular writers, prominent writers, staff writers. They could write on vision, whether offering their own views, or reporting on what is out there, and debates, etc. They could interview people about vision, strategy, etc. And if their publisher says no, they could say – what? Why/ You have published virtually everything I have ever suggested or submitted, so why not this? And they could fight that battle. That doesn’t happen. So, it isn’t just the people who run media who are part of the dynamic that makes serious vision largely off limits.
Has anything like that happened?
Well, okay, yes, a couple of regular writers – very prominent, and still writing, proposed interviewing me to the head of their venue, and were promptly turned down. This was unique, their proposals were always accepted. They told me. I urged a third person who often wrote for that venue to do the same thing – and see. That was Howard Zinn. His reply was, come on Michael, we both know I will get turned down on interviewing you, too, so why push what isn’t going to happen.
It is understandable, it makes sense writ small, but writ large, it is, if I am right, a horrible situation.
Has anything critical that anyone has ever said about parecon or parsoc been especially convincing to you in the sense of causing you to refine or modify the vision? Has anything been especially harmful to it?
Nothing has caused Robin Hahnel, we generated the parecon formulations together, or I to actually alter centrally important substance. Fact, is, there isn’t much centrally important substance there to alter. If we were convinced one or more of the basic features of parecon were flawed, it would mean we would have to dump parecon and go back to the drawing board. On the other hand, what people have said to us in private communications or email or in public debates or at public talks, including their confusions and their critiques, have very much affected what we say, and how we say it, and also, the examples we use.
One big case would be calling parecon a minimalist/maximalist approach, a recent innovation in how I talk about the issues. This phrasing tries to address, very prominently, two kinds of concerns. On the one side, people will say parecon says too much. It is a detailed blueprint that exceeds our ability to talk intelligently about social relations, or that usurps choices that future people – not us – need to make. On the other side, people will say parecon doesn’t escape from current relations sufficiently. It is mired in familiar relations and so it wouldn’t lead to much that is new but would instead preserve what is critical to capitalism.
I will tell you, honestly, I think both these criticisms – though they could be valid about some other vision – are pretty ridiculous when applied to participatory economics and would not be made by people who seriously examined what parecon claims. Such a person may not like the vision, even after paying attention to it, of course, but he or she wouldn’t be making these claims.
Parecon is quite obviously nowhere remotely near being a blueprint. Even in what parecon discusses quite closely, which is just self managed councils, balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration, and participatory planning, parecon is at constant pains to make clear that from workplace to workplace, much less from country to country, there is plenty of room for all manner of variation, so that not only aren’t details offered – for the most part, not even as examples of possibilities – they aren’t even possible.
And as to not going far enough, this is perhaps even sillier. Parecon has budgets, it has prices, and it has workplaces, and lasting structures – and so some will say, all those things exist now, too, and therefore parecon doesn’t diverge enough to be really new. When people say things like that, I am sorry, but one has to wonder, are they truly that confused, or are they saying it to be able to dismiss parecon – where the reasons they really want to dismiss parecon are different, but not able to be publicly presented?
In other words, how can someone seriously say that a formulation for a vision for a whole economy that presents just four central institutions each of which includes only some key (described) aspects – is a blueprint? Or how could one seriously say that a vision for an economy that does away with private ownership, corporate divisions of labor, markets, central planning, familiar remuneration, and familiar decision making, retains what is key to capitalism – and not only say these things, but in each case claim that it is so utterly obviously true, that there is no need to follow up by showing that it is true, no need to explain where parecon goes into excessive detail, no need to show how it preserves anything that is actually bad about current economic relations, etc.
Well, again I am not sure what the answer to that is. But I admit that I think in most cases the person saying these things very likely has some other reason for dismissing the model – maybe it violates some axiom of prior belief, maybe it threatens some interests, or whatever – and then latches onto this spurious or even ridiculous reason having not read much about parecon, and perhaps having heard someone say it is a blueprint, or bourgeois, or whatever.