- You suggest “participatory economics” against thesis which claims that there is no alternative to capitalism since the 1990’s. Why does an intellectual need to think about an alternative to capitalism and what does your model bring us for a better world?
The argument that it is necessary to conceive and to then explicitly seek an alternative to capitalism has three big premises. First, capitalism is horrific to humans. This is accepted, I think, among most people. Capitalism breeds grotesque income and power differentials including starvation and poverty on a mass scale alongside vast wealth and powerlessness on a vast scale alongside massive accumulations of centralized power. Capitalism also distorts personalities toward aggressive individualism of the worst sort, instead of promoting solidarity. Capitalism violates the ecology to the extent of threatening the very future of humanity, as well as harshly limiting its immediate present. There is much more to say, of course, but basically capitalism is so horrible on so vast a scale, that obviously one would want something much better in its place. Thus, if having a vision would help us get beyond capitalism, we should want a vision.
Second, if we had a viable and worthy vision of a replacement for capitalism – I would say, we do have that in participatory economics – then the value of the vision to us should be multifold. First and most important, such a vision can overcome the widespread cynical doubt that nothing better than capitalism is possible. If we describe, understand, and come to believe in and share a vision, then the idea that tina, there is no alternative, is transcended. In contrast, if we have no vision of an alternative, we tend to accept that capitalism is forever so that resistance much less revolution is futile. Without vision we feel that movement building is like blowing into the wind, or like fighting gravity, or like struggling to eliminate aging. It is a fool’s errand, and we avoid it. But with vision, and I think parecon qualifies as a vision, we can have reasoned hope of attaining better than capitalism, which makes efforts to attain a new world a sensible agenda, an essential agenda, not a fool’s errand.
Second, one cannot sensibly seek a new social system without knowing at least its central defining features. Without that knowledge not only doesn’t one have reasoned hope, but one doesn’t have informed orientation. How can we orient our actions to lead where we wish to arrive, if we don’t know where we wish to arrive? We have to get a ticket and get on a plane to reach any destination at all, yes, that is true. But we have to choose the right plane, if we are to get where we actually want to go. It is no different for the social program that we wish to “ride” to a new society. A desirable social program must be one we can implement, or begin implementing, now, from where we are, of course – but it also must lead where we wish to arrive.
So the conclusion is that we need vision to overcome cynicism and passivity based on false ideas that there is no alternative to capitalism, but we also need vision to provide orientation – and not just hope – and that therefore literally informs our current choices.
- Socialist experiences were founded on either “central planning” or “market socialism”. Can we relate the failure of communist “utopia” to these experiences?
“Failure” is a tricky word and can be misleading. If someone says they are trying to build a house, but in fact they are really following a blueprint for building a jail, and then they finish up and it is a jail, did they fail? No, they got what they sought, though not what they said they sought.
Movements in history seeking socialism/communism have been full of vast numbers of people truly seeking a new classless economy in which there is true equity, participation, and so on. For those people, those movements did indeed fall horrendously short, in that sense failing, in that even when such movements did overcome capitalism, they did not produce a new classless economy and a new liberated society. But, in my view, looked at from the perspective of their actual choices and programs, those movements actually succeeded, the ones that won, that is, in attaining what they were actually seeking. In other words, it wasn’t that movements conceived and built to attain classlessness won, instead, a new horrific system, it was that movements that were conceived and built to elevate a third class, what I call the coordinator class, to ruling status, with, as well, a horribly authoritarian political system, succeeded in getting what they programmatically sought, even though it was something most of their members weren’t looking to win.
Capitalism is built on private ownership of productive assets, remuneration for property but also power and to an extent output, corporate divisions of labor, hierarchical distribution of power, and market competition, along with, most often, an electoral parliamentary democracy of one sort or another. In capitalism’s place, what has been called socialism has had, instead, social or collective ownership, remuneration for power and to an extent output, corporate divisions of labor, hierarchical distribution of power, and market competition or central planning, along with, most often, a one party authoritarian state of one sort or another.
The change is real and significant on certain axes, but it is not a change to classlessness or freedom. It is a change of one boss for another. The capitalist class is gone, but the coordinator class rules. One harsh political system is gone, but an even worse one takes its place.
So, for your question regarding the failure of “utopia” – where by utopia we mean not some unreal, silly, make believe, world, but a world in which people self manage their own lives in a context of solidarity, equity, diversity, and self management, without class rule and systemic oppression – then, yes, seeking market or centrally planned socialism has been the source of the problem of not attaining that desirable future, But this wasn’t because such a future was or is impossible. It was because seeking markets or central planning and corporate divisions of labor and remuneration for output or power and centralized government structures is not the same and is indeed contradictory to and even subversive of seeking a free and equitable future.
Leninist movements got what they were organized and oriented to get, though not what most of their members wanted. In that sense the movements succeeded in accomplishing what they were organized to accomplish, but failed to accomplish what humanity needs and most of their members wanted. Leninism did not get a classless, equitable, and just society. Honestly, it is a bit like Bush saying, for the public, that he is seeking peace and justice. When he doesn’t attain it, do we say that he failed, so we need to try again, just like he did, but do it better – or do we point out, more accurately, that it wasn’t his true goal in the first place, so we need to act completely differently if we are to succeed?
- We think, your “parecon model” has some similarities to Gramscist-Luxemburgist council communism and the ideas of self-management which lead to Tito’s Yugoslavia. In which aspects is your Parecon Model influenced by Marxist literature and which aspects differentiated from it?
Parecon and the broader ideas of participatory society are influenced by the understanding of economics and society that looks for institutional bases for social outcomes, by the understanding of the importance of classes imposed by positions people hold in the economy, by the understanding of alienation as outcomes oriented to other than human well being and development, and indeed by the understanding of many things that diverse Marxists have helped reveal. It also influenced, however, by seeing the results of Marxist Leninist movements and realizing the allegiances and commitments, not mistakes but bad options, that caused those results.
I think parecon is certainly in the tradition of council communism – pannekoek, rocker, etc. – and also in various respects Luxembourg and Gramci and the Italian communists of his time. But it is also different in how it understands economy amidst and influenced by other aspects of society, and how it understands the relations of a corporate division of labor and competitive and authoritarian modes of allocation to final class relations. What was wrong in Yugoslavia wasn’t wanting self management, as in people having a say over the decisions that affect them in proportion to the extent of that effect. That was a worthy aim. What was wrong was not understanding that keeping the old division of labor inside workplaces, and connecting workplaces one to another and to consumers via markets, would subvert that aim. What was wrong, as well, was a willingness to adopt an authoritarian political system. These were key problems, among others, as well. Why do movements not understand the connection between certain institutional choices – for the division of labor and allocation – and class relations? Is it because it is so complex it is too hard to fathom? I don’t think so. I think it is because classist habits get in the way, classist propaganda and manipulation, classist expectations and fears, and so on.
There is of course more to all this, much more, but limited by space and at the risk of oversimplifying and leaving out important points, I would say the differences are mainly:
- A pareconish approach, as compared to a Leninist one, does not elevate economy above polity, kinship, culture, ecology, or international relations, but instead treats all with comparable focus and priority, understanding, as well, their mutual and not one way, interrelations.
- A pareconish approach, as compared to a Leninist one, recognizes that there are three classes, not two, central to modern struggles over the distribution of economic product and its content and decisions associated with economic life. There are owners of means of production, the traditional capitalists. There are also, however, what I call coordinator class, which is the group that largely monopolizes empowering tasks in the economy, lawyers, doctors, managers, engineers, and so on, which is about 20%, roughly, in a developed economy. Then there are workers, which is people consigned to rote, repetitive, and overwhelmingly disempowering tasks. The key insight about this new class map is that not only capitalists can be a ruling class above workers, as in capitalism, but coordinators can be a ruling class above workers, too, if capitalists are removed, as in what has been called market and centrally planned socialism, which I would call market and centrally planned coordinatorism. Put differently, one can have an anticapitalist movement which is, however, not seeking classlessness but seeking coordinator rule. And that is what Leninist movements have been, even against the highest aspirations and wishes of many of their members, movement seeking coordinatorism, not classlessness.
- In light of the above two points, a pareconish approach seeks liberating political, cultural, kinship, ecological, and international relations – not just a new economy – and also, regarding the economy, a pareconish approach seeks real and full classlessness, which means no private ownership of means of production, yes, but also means self managing decision making in place of hierarchical centralization of powers, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of work in place of payment for property or for power, balanced job complexes that fairly distribute rote and empowering tasks in place of a corporate (which is also a coordinatorist) division of labor, and participatory planning in place of markets and central planning.
- Your writings on “parecon” give hope to us. Some other intellectuals, for example Toni Negri, striving to fertilize this hope, represent a political subject to overcome capitalism. It’s clear that you have a strategy; however, there is a lack of political subject. We mean in your strategy, “who” and “how” will realize “parecon”.
I don’t understand, to be honest, much of what Negri writes, so it is hard to comment. I find it to be incredibly obtuse and I think that is a horrible condemnation, I have to say. In my view, to win a new world we must have movements that reflect and are guided and defined by people who work long hours in difficult circumstances in the current world. For that to happen, those movements must have vision and strategy that such people share, and not only share, but make their own, adapt, refine, work with. That can’t occur if vision and strategy are written in incredibly inaccessible language. That precludes participation rather than promoting it. I think, honestly, it is more about making believe one is smart than trying to actually build real, viable, popular movements.
Of what I do get from Negri’s incredibly obtuse writing which I mostly can’t understand, if my limited perception is correct, I have to say I don’t think he is actually offering anything fundamentally new. His notion of multitude is barely different from proletarian in the following critically important respects – first, again, it is overwhelmingly economic, at base, as if other facets of life don’t affect people’s likelihood of becoming agents of change, and, second, regarding economy, it again, as in the past with Leninism, obscures the reality that there is not one possible anticapitalist agenda, but two, one that leads to what we want, which is classlessness, but another that leads to a very different result, which is coordinator class rule. If we talk about multitude and supporters of empire, then just like talking about proletarians and supporters of capitalism, we have obscured that reality is more complex (though easy enough to understand if we are clear about it) in a very very important manner – that is, reality is more complex than the we/they model of struggle, in that there is more than one anti capitalist agenda. The use of concepts which have only two referents, good guys and bad guys, is a kind of sleight of hand in which the language proposed, instead of helping us understand what is central to winning a better world, hides the truth from us. It is like capitalist’s use of words like efficiency, freedom, and so on, in that it is designed to take our eyes of critical aspects of the world. We need to develop movements seeking classlessness – but if we don’t highlight in our thinking that in addition to capitalism there are coordinator economies, as well as and against participatory economies, then those who are seeking the former coordinator economies will be able to determine the movement’s structure and program, just as with Leninism in the past, all over again.
In a pareconish approach to social change the agents of change are of course the people who fight for it, but the sectors and classes that we need to have intimately engaged and providing leadership and energy and focus to the struggle are women, cultural minorities, the politically disenfranchised, and working people – with the last meaning those doing rote and disempowering labor. This view doesn’t mean that men aren’t involved, or members of cultural majorities, or politically more enfranchised folks, or coordinator class folks, it means that the movement’s definition and program comes from those at the bottom, from those with interests to win a truly liberated world, not from those likely to elevate themselves at some point, rather than eliminating hierarchies per se.
- Seattle became a turning point for the movement of anti-capitalist globalization. What are the factors that made this movement so strategic? Why in Seattle, why at 1999?
Well, I have to say, I don’t think it was, in fact, a turning point. It was a large, but not even overly large, outpouring, in a long line of related events. What gave Seattle prominence was that it was in the U.S., the belly of the beast, so to speak, and not much else. I think that what will mark a turning point for contemporary movements, what will be the next really big turning point, and what will put such movements on a very new footing, including vastly increasing their affectivity, will be a turn toward incorporating institutional vision of a truly liberated future and then seriously formulating related strategy that becomes rooted in both our current capacities and oriented to attaining our future well developed and widely shared aims, and then aggressively and attentively acting on both this vision and strategy in its choices and actions.
- You asserted “Turkey is not a fertile country for discussions of “parecon” in your book, Looking Forward’s “Foreword to Turkish Edition”, in 1994. What are your motives for asserting such an idea? What can you say about Parecon’s universality?
I rather doubt that I ever said anything like that, perhaps in context it meant something different, or perhaps a translation problem, I don’t know. I have no memory of it, which doesn’t prove anything much. But more to the point, first, how would I know such a thing? I know little about Turkey now, and I knew even less then. More, I don’t see any reason at all to think such a thing. I think parecon is relevant to the U.S., say, but also Turkey, to India but also Italy, to Guatemala but also Thailand, and to Australia but also Venezuela – especially Venezuela.
It seems to me that it has never been true, this is another problem of much of Marxism, that seeking classlessness, or liberty, or self management, or feminism, and so on, are agendas that make sense only in some places, but not others. On the contrary, in the modern world I doubt that serious institutional progress can be won, and maintained, anywhere, without clear and coherent vision and related strategy, and if that progress is going to attain classlessness as in parecon, say, than it will have to be motivated by and informed by understanding of that classless aim. Thus, not only are discussions of parecon important, but so too is the formation of projects that attempt to experiment with implementing aspects in local ways, and so too is creation of local and then city and then regional and national movements in which members all fully comprehend and are able to think in light of pareconish vision, seeking it and winning it, not just discussing it. And I see no reason why Turkey is different from the U.S. or anywhere else, at that broad level, in these respects.