Chapter Twelve: Participatory Vision
Informs Participatory Revolution
Draft of chapter for the book in process, Fanfare for the Future – please do not quote.
We now have the main components of a vision for new, desirable, institutions for a new, desirable, society. What do we call it? Many will call it participatory society. Many others will call it participatory socialism. Why the two names is one question we address in this chapter. A second is, what will be the place of a participatory society in the environment? Its ecological footprint? Also, what will be the place of a participatory society in the world – its international relations? Last, to motivate our next set of chapters which enter into much more detail – we very briefly outline the relation of participatory society to movements for social change. Let us take these in turn.
Why Two Names
Our vision fulfills the stated aspirations of socialists – also anarchists, feminists, intercommunalists, and really everyone who stands for justice, etc. Grassroots socialists typically want justice, people controlling their own lives, classlessness, feminism, cultural diversity, and so on. So our vision suits them. So why not just call it socialism? Well, that term has been claimed – not to match the values, but for a specific mix of institutions also lumped under the terms Twentieth Century Socialism, market socialism, centrally planned, socialism, really existing socialism, and so on. They referent is the old Soviet Union, China, etc. These systems no more fulfill the values we have put forth than the U.S. System fulfills the values it advocates say they favor, diversity, freedom, democracy, fairness, and so on. What has usurped the name socialism has in fact typically not been very feminist, not been intercommunalist (almost the opposite), not been self managing (but instead grossly authoritarian), and not even been classless, its catchword label, but instead had its economies ruled by the coordinator class above workers.
All this is anathema. Take just the economy – which for socialists is what they mainly key in on. Heretofore socialism in practice – the institutions – has included at best paper councils with no real power (often after real ones have been destroyed), remuneration for output and power, corporate divisions of labor, allocation by markets, central planning, or a combination of the two – and, due to all that, coordinator class rule. In contrast, participatory economics, part of our developing vision, has worker and consumer councils as the vehicles of decision making, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor, balanced job complexes, and allocation by participatory planning – and, due to all that, classlessness. This is not apples and oranges. It is arsenic and nutrition.
Okay, so we can’t call our vision socialism, it seems, for fear of implying it has something in common with all that. However, again, most socialists around the world, also reject – at least in theory – all that. And the propose essentially the same values we do. And many have already indicated their support for the new formulations. And they want to keep touch with the heritage – not out of loyalty to horrendous institutional choices of the past, but out of allegiance to the memory of all the grassroots activists, like themselves, who south a vision like ours but had their dreams subverted rather than fulfilled.
Okay, can we accommodate? Perhaps yes. Perhaps calling our economic vision participatory economics not market or centrally planned socialism, and calling our kinship, cultural, and political visions, participatory kinship, community, and polity – plus calling the amalgamation of it all participatory socialism, is enough to make the distinction. For those who think it is, and who want to continue the legacy not of one party states, class rule, quarter way or less feminism, and cultural homogenization – but of truly socialist values – calling the vision in this book participatory socialism will make sense. For those who worry even more about clarifying the differences with the past, calling it participatory society will make sense. Which name will emerge as used more, or perhaps even overall, time will tell. In either case, the shorthand version is parsoc.
Parsoc and Ecology
When asking the implications of participatory society/socialism, or parsoc, for the ecology, the main issue is economics – but it is via production and consumption that by far the largest social impact on ecology occurs, and economies affect natural environments in diverse ways, of course. Economies add new contents to the environment, such as pollutants. They deplete natural contents from the environment, such as resources. They alter the arrangement and composition of attributes in the environment or the way in which people relate to the environment, such as by building dams or creating changed patterns of human habitation, among countless other possibilities. And each of these and other possible ways of an economy affecting the environment can, in turn, have additional ripple effects on nature’s composition and on people’s lives.
Thus, for example, an economy can add economic byproducts to the environment as in exhaust spewing from cars or smoke stacks accumulating chemicals in the atmosphere. In turn these effluents can impede breathing or alter the way the sun’s rays affect atmospheric temperatures. Both these economic implications can themselves have ripple effects on people’s health, or on air currents which then impact sea currents in turn affecting polar ice caps and then altering weather patterns, sea levels, and crop yields, in turn dramatically impacting human options and conditions.
Or an economy can use up oil, water, or forests, leading to people having to reduce their use of depleted resources and thus affecting the total level of both production and consumption around the world, or affecting the availability of nutrients essential to life, or of building materials needed for creating dwellings in many parts of the world.
Or an economy can alter the shape and content of the natural environment’s dynamics, as for example when by reducing forests we reduce the supply of oxygen they emit into the atmosphere, or when by increasing the number of cows and affecting their eating patterns (to produce more tasty steak for ourselves) we increase the methane they expel, again leading to greenhouse effects that in turn alter global weather patterns, or when we alter human living patterns and thus transportation patterns and other consumption patterns and attitudes, affecting people’s on-going relations to mountains, rivers, air, and other species.
In the above cases and countless others impacting the supply or the quality of weather, air, water, or even noise, globally or regionally, or affecting resource availability, or even affecting the availability of enjoyable or natural environments, what we do in our economic lives affects either directly or by a many-step process, how we environmentally prosper or suffer in our daily lives, whether now or in the future, as well as how the environment itself adapts.
In other words, economic acts have direct, secondary, and tertiary affects on the environment, and the changed environment in turn has direct, secondary, and tertiary affects on our life conditions.
Sometimes these effects are horrifying, as in seas rising to swallow coastal areas and even whole low lying countries, or as in crop, resource, or water depletion that causes starvation or other extreme widespread deprivations. Or maybe the effects are slightly less severe but still horrific as in tornados, hurricanes, droughts and floods devastating large swaths of population, or inflated cancer rates caused by polluted ground water or by escalated radiation cutting down large numbers of people early in life, or dams eliminating whole towns or villages due to their footprint. Or maybe the effects are limited to smaller areas suffering loss of enriching environmental surroundings when natural environments are paved over or when noise pollution arises from loud production or consumption.
It follows from all these possibilities that the relations of an economy to the surrounding natural environment are deadly serious and that to fail regarding relations to the environment, even if succeeding on all other criteria, would be a damning weakness for any proposed economic model or new society.
Capitalism and Ecology
Capitalism fails miserably regarding the environment. First, capitalism’s market system prioritizes maximizing short-run profit regardless of long-run implications. Second, markets ignore environmental effects and have built in incentives to violate the environment whenever doing so will yield profits or, for that matter, consumer fulfillment at the cost of others. And, third, there is the capitalist drive to accumulate regardless of effects on life and all other variables.
In markets, to explain the above, a seller encounters a buyer. The seller tries to get as high a price as possible for the object sold while also diminishing costs of production. This is done to maximize profits, which in turn not only yields higher income, but also facilitates competition-enhancing investments undertaken to win market share and thereby stay in business.
The buyer, meanwhile, tries to pay for an item as low a price as possible and then to consume it with as much fulfillment as possible regardless of the impact of these actions on others about whom little or no information is available.
For both parties market exchange obscures the effects their choices have beyond the buyer and seller, and prevents taking into account the well being of those who feel these external effects.
More, if some course of action will lower the cost of producing an item or will increase the fulfillment of its consumption, but will also incur environmental degradation that affects someone other than the buyer or seller, that course of action will be undertaken. Thus we routinely use production techniques that pollute and also consume items with no regard for environmental impact.
Rock salt, it turns out, is a very effective tool for “keeping both private driveways and public highways from icing up.” Andrew Bard Schmookler reports that “…the runoff of the salt…causes damage to underground cables, car bodies, bridges, and groundwater. The cost of these damages is twenty to forty times the price of the salt to the persons or organization buying and using it.”
In other words, rock salt has unaccounted adverse effects beyond the buyers and sellers who choose to produce it, sell it, buy it, and use it, to keep road from icing up. Schmookler then reports that “there is an alternative product to rock salt that produces no such damage from runoff. It is called CMA, and it costs a good deal more than the salt. It costs less, however, than the damages the salt inflicts.” But "No highway department, homeowner, or business would purchase large quantities of CMA today even if it were widely available, because the individual doesn't care about [social] cost, only [about private] price."
In other words, markets create incentives to violate the environment and anything else external to the buyer and seller whenever doing so will enhance the producer’s profit.
This is just one of countless examples, chosen for its clarity, and as Schmookler rightly concludes, it shows that market forces “will make changes flow in a predictable direction, like water draining off the land, downhill, to the sea.”
That is, sellers will use production methods that spew pollution but that cost less than using clean technologies, or they will use production methods that damage groundwater or use up resources but that cost less than methods that don’t, or they will use production methods that build into products secondary effects which consumers who buy the product won’t directly suffer but others will, and which cost less. And the same logic will typically hold for consumer choices about how to utilize the items they have bought. The impact of their use on others will most often be unknown and ignored.
And it isn’t only that in each transaction the participants have an incentive to find the cheapest, most profitable course of production and the most personally fulfilling course of consumption, it is that markets compel the absolute maximum of exchanges to be enacted. There is a drive to buy and sell even beyond the direct benefits of doing so because each producer is weighing off not the benefits of a little more income versus a little more leisure due to working less but, instead, the benefits of staying in business versus going out of business. That is, each actor competes for market share to gain surpluses with which to invest to reduce future costs, pay for future advertising, etc., and these surpluses must be maximized in the present lest one is out competed in the future.
The race for market share becomes a drive to continually amass profit without respite, which means to do so even beyond what the greed of owners might otherwise entail.
In all market systems, and particularly in capitalist markets, growth is god. The guiding philosophy is grow or die regardless of contrary personal inclinations. This not only violates attentiveness to sustainability of resources but also produces a steadily escalating flow of garbage and pollution. Transactions multiply and in each transaction the incentive to pollute and to otherwise violate the environment persists. In the end, what we get is an economy spewing into, using up, and damaging the environment on a massive scale – ranging from turning communities into dump sites, making cities sick with smog, polluting ground waters that in turn escalate cancer rates, or causing global warming that threatens not only raging storms but even vast upheavals of ocean levels and agriculture, with untold costs to follow.
Parsoc and Ecology
Will a participatory economy be any better for the environment than capitalism? The answer is yes, for a number of reasons.
First, in a parecon there is no pressure to accumulate. Each producer is not compelled to try to expand surplus in order to compete with other producers for market share, but, instead, the level of output reflects a true mediation between desires for more consumption and desires for a lower overall amount of work.
In other words, whereas in capitalism the labor/leisure trade off is biased heavily toward more production at all times due to the need for overall growth to avoid shrinkage and failure, in parecon it is an actual, real, unbiased trade off.
In a parecon we each face a choice between increasing the overall duration and intensity of our labor to increase our consumption budget, or, instead, working less to increase our overall time available to enjoy labor’s products and the rest of life’s options. And since society as a whole faces this exact same choice, we can reasonably predict that instead of a virtually limitless drive to increase work hours and intensity, a parecon will have no drive to accumulate output beyond levels that meet needs and develop potentials, and will therefore stabilize at much lower output and work levels – say thirty hours of work a week, and eventually, even less. Interestingly, and revealingly, some mainstream economists criticize that in a parecon people will decide their work levels and will likely decide on less than now as a flaw rather than celebrating it as a virtue, which I of course take it to be.
The second issue is one of valuation. Again unlike in capitalism, as well as with markets more generally, participatory planning doesn’t have each transaction determined only by the person who directly produces and the person who directly consumes, with each of these participants having structural incentives to maximize personal benefits regardless of the broader social impact. Instead, every act of production and consumption in a parecon is