Looking Backward, Looking Forward: One Year of Parecon Organizing

By the Vancouver Parecon Collective:
Jamie Campbell, Dave Collins, Bryan Berndt, Matt Grinder, Daniel Palmer, Chris Spannos, David Pehota

It’s been just over one year since the Vancouver Parecon Collective came into existence. It was sometime in September 2003 that a few of us Vancouver Pareconistas stumbled upon one another. Since then we have created a project that has far exceeded any of our expectations of 12 months ago. In fact, we have opened further doors for future possibilities that are exciting, intimidating, inspiring and hopeful. Here, we want to review some of our achievements as well as some of our failures. We also share some of our aspirations for the near future. We do this with the hopes of encouraging others to pursue similar adventures.

Looking Backward

After meeting each other we discovered that we all shared a very strong interest in economic justice. But not the kind of economic justice that is claimed in the myths and lies extolling the virtues of capitalism, with its privately owned productive property, competition, markets, corporate hierarchies, class rule and inequitable remuneration schemes. Nor were we interested in the kind of economic justice that has been heralded by promoters of authoritarian models of communism characterized by central planning, state owned productive property and a small elite of coordinators who plan the over all economic course of society. No, we found our commitment to economic justice articulated in Robin Hahnel and Michael Albert’s vision of Participatory Economics. A model with federations of workers and consumers councils, decentralized participatory planning, balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and indicative pricing. An economic system that promotes the values of solidarity, equity, self-management, diversity and efficiency.

Beyond discovering our similar commitments to social and economic justice we also had the luck of good timing. Before meeting, one of us was asked to give a parecon presentation to a bunch of university students. We quickly mobilized to create leaflets, a web site and mailing list. We even recorded the talk with the hopes of disseminating the audio. The night was very memorable because it was raining cats and dogs, with may other activist events happening all over town. We had a very impressive turn out for the circumstances, 15-18 people. The evening was filled with very insightful discussion from a wide diversity of perspectives. We emerged from the evening with a sense inspiring success. It affirmed our belief that people were interested in a model of economic justice that transcended both the failures of capitalism and central planning.

We quickly began organizing regular monthly meetings to encourage participation. Our collective then grew, and fluctuated. We were, are, and have been teachers, students, social service workers, computer programmers, journalists, antiwar activists, mothers, political party representatives, vegetarians, vegans and carnivores.

Tabling events also became a common, and effective, outreach tool for our initial organizing. We tabled the first four opening nights for the film “The Corporation”, literally reaching thousands. Vancouver’s “Under the Volcano” festival and May Day fair were also a good places for us to mix, mingle and meet new and like minded people.

Soon we were organizing our next workshop, “Participatory Economics: A just alternative to capitalism & communism” held at the University of British Columbia. And only a few months later we gave another workshop for “Critical U”, a Simon Fraser University program aimed at giving people access to university curriculum, outside the university, in Vancouver’s east side. This presentation was also a success and you can view pictures of the event here: http://vanparecon.resist.ca/photos.html

In April of 2003 Global Justice TV broadcast our UBC presentation on televisions across British Columbia’s lower mainland. Not just once, but three times! They did an excellent job editing and producing a program with high production qualities. You can down load the video file by clicking on this link: http://globaljustice.ca/video/parecon.mov

In May, the Vancouver Area Anti-Capitalist Convergence asked the Vancouver Parecon Collective to present a workshop on “Alternative Economic Models”. We presented various models of capitalist, socialist and democratically planned economies; specifically participatory economics. Our purpose was to orient Vancouver’s anti-capitalist movement towards thinking about what alternatives are available. We also attempted to explore the desirability and feasibility of these different economic models, and how to get there. The result was our talk “Parecon & Other Alternatives to Capitalism”. You can listen to the talk by down loading the file here: http://www.radio4all.net/proginfo.php?id=9200

Around this time we asked Noam Chomsky to comment for us about the importance of organizing for a participatory economy. We thought we’d use it on our web site and other promotional material. To our pleasant surprise, Noam kindly generated a comment in which he said, “A great many activists and concerned people ask, quite rightly, what alternative form of social organization can be imagined that might overcome the grave flaws — often real crimes — of contemporary society in more far-reaching ways than short-term reform. Parecon is the most serious effort I know to provide a very detailed possible answer to some of these questions, crucial ones, based on serious thought and careful analysis.”

This comment obviously exceeded any of our expectations. We are very grateful to Noam for this.

Perhaps one of the most difficult events to organize to date has been our showing of the documentary film “The Corporation”. This was supposed to be a fundraiser for a local anarchist book store, Sparticus Books, which caught fire and burnt to the ground. We also hoped to raise money for another parecon project, The NewStandard. For this event we had The Corporation’s co-director Bart Simpson present to introduce the film. After the film we held a workshop on parecon. The whole event went off without a hitch, with one substantial exception. Organizationally, it was a success. We put an enormous amount of effort into the event and it went very smoothly. However, financially it was a total failure… We put close to a thousand dollars into it and made only $150.00 back, collective bummer. That didn’t stop us from enjoying the rest of the day out for lunch and at the beach. There was even a strong sense of accomplishment in our experience organizing the event. We decided we wouldn’t keep the money we raised, that’d be better to give it to the groups we were fundraising for. So in the end we felt it was a success. You can view photos for this event here: http://vanparecon.resist.ca/photoscorp.html

Another notable event was the “Post-Market” flea market and discussion group, a two day event organized by “Counter Publics”, a group of local activist artists. They invited us to hold an info table at their flea market for the first day. The flea market was a very stimulating experience offering an opportunity to interact in new ways via barter and exchange. Participants could trade goods and services for any other goods and services, the only rule being that participants couldn’t use money. One of us traded a copy of “Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the Twenty First Century” for a bottle of juice. We didn’t even try to calculate whether the indicative prices embodied in our goods made this an equal exchange, such are the limitations to barter, and we were thirsty.

For the second day we participated on a discussion weaving together the topics of participatory economics, the open source software movement and surrealism. It was here that we were able to fully elaborate on the benefits of a full system of democratic planning as compared to markets or barter systems. We also discussed art in a parecon and the implications of the open source movement for the anti-capitalist movement.

Another area of our work has been our attempts to generate more content, via audio and print media, exploring all aspect of participatory economics. We have written, published and produced commentary, interviews, reviews and essays on a wide variety of parecon related focuses. From “Parecon: The Unofficial Economics of Star Trek” to a look at the possible future of architecture in a parecon in our essay “Architecture of the New Society”. Most recently we interviewed Stephen Shalom on “ParPolity: Political vision for the Good Society”. And, an interview with Robin Hahnel, “Participatory Economics and the Environment”, will be on our web site in the new year. You can find all of these on our home page: http://vanparecon.resist.ca

All this has been very exciting and again, more than any of us have expected over the past year. However, there are still areas that we want to work on that we think are very important, but have been unable to make very much progress. This area is the creation of actual parecon institutions to put our theories into concrete practice. This is different than the work we are already doing in the sense that we are all volunteering our time and energy to parecon organizing. The organizing is dispersed among what our own time and commitments allow us to do. This means that, even though we may try to share our work equitably, some times our efforts are scattered and even dissipate around certain projects. In this context we are constantly fighting against institutional pressures, capitalist and other, in order for us to make our project sustainable. And not only sustainable, but to grow. In this effort we have had many ideas and plans to try to create divers parecon enterprises. These efforts have been overwhelmed by the enormity of redirecting our energies from everyday commitments in our lives. Instead, and this is reaffirming, we seem to be making progress on many other fronts. One of which is the battle to make parecon a visible alternative economic system that people can then choose from. Locally we have made very impressive progress. Globally, we hope to act as an inspiration and perhaps one model , for how others can organize for a participatory economy.

Looking Forward

One way we have tried to over come some of these barriers over the last year is to develop a “One Year Plan” which looks forward mapping out the coming twelve months. However, the process of looking forward is harder then reviewing our past. It demands much more creativity and, in the process, a reevaluation and realignment of our commitments. Below are some of our ideas for the coming year:

– Make our collective organizing efforts financially sustainable, and even allow growth.

This would be done by trying to generate regular parecon content for our web site, mostly from Vancouver Parecon Collective members, but also from other divers writers, activists and theorists. This would mean developing some kind of membership and donation base for our web site. In addition to creating regular systems for generating content, applying editorial practices, skills, tasks and deadlines, just to name a few things we’d have to do on top of what we already do as volunteers.

– Proposal for Participatory Budgeting

This is someting we are currently working on. We hope to make a broad proposal for participatory budgeting, both locally in Vancouver, provincially in British Columbia and also nationally for Canada. We hope to stimulate efforts between divers activists, community groups, Left think tanks and policy institutes to create a “shadow participatory budget” which will demonstrate its effectiveness at empowering workers and consumers. This would be used to critique official budgets and push for a series of non-reformist reforms of participatory policy proposals. The outcome would hopefully be to stimulate mass movements and political will power to implement these alternatives.

– Further Education: talks, workshops, radio programs, essays and interviews

Something for us to look forward to this winter is our showing of the “Parecon Shed Sessions”, a seven part video series examining many aspects of parecon and other alternatives to capitalism. This would be accompanied by after movie discussions and weekly readings.

We also hope to continue holding workshops and other educational events. In addition we are currently brainstorming new ideas and focuses for articles, essays, and interviews.

– Canadian National Parecon Organization

This is something that we think is definitely feasible since Canada already has a rich history and practice of experimentation in parecon institutions. The folks in Winnipeg are the main source of this experimentation. They have the Mondragon Bookstore & Coffeehouse, G7 Welcoming Committee Records and the Arbeiter Ring Publishing house. We think we should some how network with the folks in Winnipeg but have not made any attempts at this so far. In addition, our experience in Vancouver tells us that there is interest in parecon across the country. Some kind of national organization could help facilitate interaction and organizing for parecon groups across Canada, becoming an effective tool for advocacy. However, many issues arise and these are also similar to those found in the next possibility.

– An International Organization for Participatory Economics

This is motivated by a reoccurring desire among us in the Vancouver Parecon Collective to establish, networks, cooperation and solidarity among all parecon organizations, enterprises and individuals. The purpose would be to create an effective parecon advocacy group internationally. We have periodic discussions about this but have no clear ideas. In his March 10, 2004 blog entry, “Advocating Parecon: An Organization”, Michael Albert explores this issue. It’s worth quoting the whole blog entry at length for the clarity of the issues Michael outlines:

“What about creating an organization of pareconists, so to speak? I don’t know whether this would be positive if it were it to grow to considerable size, nor even whether it would grow at all, for that matter. So this is an idea that pounds away in my mind…not escaping those borders into actual practice.

On the one hand, and this is always the easy part, imagine we had an organization for participatory economics called ope or something. Suppose it had ten thousand or even a hundred thousand or a million members worldwide, with chapters in dozens of countries. Suppose it was internally self managing. Suppose it advocated, explored, debated, and tried to flexibly, locally implement pareconish structure as well as trying to win non-reformist reforms in a trajectory leading toward parecon. Would this be a good thing?

To my thinking, of course if parecon is a good thing then such an organization would be wonderful.

But, you say, if we did this now it wouldn’t be this big and so powerful and so structurally consistent with pareconish values at the outset. Well of course it wouldn’t – that takes time. But nor could it ever get to that desired stature unless it got started at some initial time and place and scale, however initially small and inferior to ultimate hopes. So there is an argument for doing it.

On the other hand, who is going to define such an organization at its outset? What confidence can we have it would remain or become self-managing as its membership grew? What confidence can we have, for that matter, that it would grow rather than petering out at the expense of our efforts? What confidence can we have that such an organization would be open and exploratory and constantly innovative, as compared to being stodgy and sectarian. How can we be confident that it would implement changes flexibly as compared to being an adventurist nuisance or just plain incompetent? Should these and other concerns cause us only to function with great care, or should they cause us to entirely reject such an attempt?”

We hope our experience over the last year, and our hopes for the coming, can help explore the possibility of such an attempt. However, we also hope that our experience inspires others to start organizing themselves, both locally and globally. And we want to hear your ideas too. So please e-mail us at vancouverparecon@resist.ca

The Vancouver Parecon Collective is currently Jamie Campbell, Dave Collins, Bryan Berndt, Matt Grinder, Daniel Palmer, Chris Spannos, David Pehota

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