The Personal Implications of Participatory Economics

Consider participatory economics. What are its key features? What would be their main implications for the overall situation we find ourselves in? What would be their additional implications for who we can be?


Parecon’s Key Features

Participatory economics has a few central defining institutions. It has collective social control of workplaces instead of private ownership of the means of production. It has self managing workers and consumers councils instead of authoritarian rule by owners and managers. It give workers income for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor instead of for power, property, or output. It offers workers balanced job complexes wherein everyone does a degree of empowering and disempowering work together comparable to what everyone else does, instead of offering only a corporate division of labor with about 20% of the workforce doing all the empowering tasks and the rest doing only rote and disempowering tasks. And finally it has participatory planning or cooperative negotiation by workers and consumers councils of economic inputs and outputs instead of market competition and/or central planning for allocation. 

The essential logic of these few defining institutions can be briefly summarized. 

  • Workplaces are run by all those who work in them in mediation with those who consume what the workers produce or who provide the inputs the workers utilize. 
  • Decision making conveys to each worker and consumer a say proportionate to the degree they are affected. This “self management” isn’t always one person one vote majority rule, or always consensus, or always any variant on those familiar options. Instead it can be any of those approaches, or other possibilities, as circumstances require. 
  • The social product divides among all actors such that those who can’t work get a full share and such that everyone gets insurance, free health care, public goods, etc. – and so that each person who is able to work receives a share of the social product proportionate to the duration, intensity, and onerousness of their socially valued labor. 

Thus, we don’t get more income for having some innate or learned talent, or for working in a critical industry, or for being personally or collectively strong enough to forcefully claim more, or for owning property. We get more income only for doing socially valuable work longer, or harder, or under worse conditions. This is shown to be equitable as well as incentive-wise in its mode of eliciting involvement and generating quality outcomes.

At work, we each do an array of tasks designed so that our overall job has comparable effects on our abilities to participate as a full decision making actor as other people’s overall jobs have on them. This equilibration of readiness and means to participate is achieved by having each worker do a mix of some disempowering and some empowering work such that, on average, the total work that each person does is comparably empowering to the total work others do. This is called having a balanced job complex. 

Balanced job complexes are shown to fairly apportion circumstances as well as to efficiently utilize the talents of all actors, not just of a few at the top.  Balanced job complexes are also part of eliminating class division. Parecon sees owners but also empowered workers (who parecon advocates call coordinator class members) as classes that can operate above disempowered workers (or the working class). Owners rule capitalism. Coordinators rule what has typically been called 20th century socialism but is more aptly called coordinatorism. In Parecon class differences simply disappear, not least due to parecon having balanced job complexes.

In all economies, some people or groups want some items, but other people or groups want others. Allocation is the name for how an economy determines how much of everything to produce and where it all goes. Familiar institutions for allocation are markets and central planning but parecon opts, instead, for participatory planning, which is workers and consumers councils collectively and interactively negotiating their joint production and consumption to accord with each other, while preserving equitable remuneration, respecting balanced job complexes, and furthering collective self management. 

The essence of participatory planning is that workers and consumers councils propose their own activities, consider the proposals of others, alter their own proposals into steadily closer accord with their desires and the overall situation through a number of rounds of planning, until an overall plan is reached. It is shown that this plan accounts for the true social, personal, and ecological costs and benefits of contending possibilities. 


Main Societal Implications

The above components of participatory economics, and the logic of their use, have many broad social implications. These are spelled out in a great many presentations, but we can easily summarize the basics. 

There is equity. Everyone receives a fair share of the overall social product. One can only get more due to working longer, more intensely, or at harder conditions. And these are not only morally warranted reasons to receive more, but also motivate workers enduring greater duration, intensity, or onerousness at work, when doing so is desirable.

There is self management. All actors have an appropriate proportionate say in outcomes that affect them. There is no top down rule, no exclusion, and each actor has a say proportionate to effects on him or her – so all actors are respected and can participate equally.

There is solidarity. All actors benefit from each other’s gains and cannot gain at the expense of reducing other people’s benefits. Thus, workers and consumers collectively all benefit comparably from innovations, increased output, etc., rather than any individual or group benefitting more at the expense of others benefitting less. My well being and your well being are structurally entwined. We each account for the other’s well being in seeking our own – even if we would tend toward ignoring or trampling one another in a market setting.

Each actor utilizes his or her capacities as he or she prefers, instead of most actors having their capacities diminished so they can passively fit a degrading social slot that requires only rote behaviors. In capitalism, the capacities of 80% of the population are limited and squashed to prepare them for subordinate roles. In a parecon, the capacities of all are welcomed and nurtured to prepare for full participation and self management.

Ecology is properly accounted. The full social and ecological costs and benefits of choices are revealed to all workers and consumers and each has an interest in outcomes that properly account for those costs and benefits. There is no drive to accumulate other than to meet needs and fulfill potentials equitably while accounting for ecological and other implications.

Corruption and crime, even undertaken by the pathological and brilliant, are very hard to undertake to one’s advantage because excessive wealth cannot be had by any route other than crime. Thus, to publicly enjoy significant fruits of crime or corruption is to reveal their source.

Some Personal Implications

There is no existing society which has a participatory economy. There are experiments and constructions that have elements in common with parecon, usually in single workplaces or communities, sometimes in a few that relate to one another, but there is nothing like a whole society with a participatory economy. As a result, as with discussing any proposed but not yet enacted social vision, we can only estimate the personal implications based on our understanding of the vision’s structures. Below I offer a few extrapolations – partly to show the way this kind of estimate can emerge. 

For example, since in a parecon there is equity, actors have to enter economic life expecting and respecting that they will be rewarded comparably to others rather than being rewarded vastly more or less than others. This changes how people can and will view themselves and their relations to others. We can’t sensibly be in school seeking a future of vast personal enrichment. Nor could we sensibly be in school, fearing a future of poverty. 

Similarly, in a parecon, we will learn to assess our own preferences quite differently than in the past. For example, it becomes real to assess whether I want some item – say a new computer or bicycle, or whatever – so much that it warrants my working to have income for it, or whether, instead, my taste for it is less than my taste for greater leisure. Currently, we work as much as owners can compel, or barely at all due to suffering unemployment (which is gone in a parecon, of course). In a future parecon, however, we will work in accord with our taste for work and for the fruits of work, as compared to our competing desires for leisure and all the things we can do with leisure. This will, we can reasonably predict, dramatically shorten the duration of work for most, and maybe all, citizens.

Similarly, since there is self management – rather than each person having no say, or having minimal say, or having huge say – we all have good reason to express our true desires and seek social outcomes we like. Absenting ourselves from decision making, which is often very sensible in current societies, becomes needless and anti social in a parecon. We all in a parecon will have good reason to develop the skills and confidence to have informed opinions and to be able to advocate them. Authoritarian impulses, to the extent they persist for a time, can’t be fulfilled in a parecon and, instead, we must learn to appreciate that others have a say just as we do – in a human community. 

Solidarity is a complex concept. But the underlying idea is that we should each have concern for the well being of others, not only ourself. In a society where self and others are constantly at odds, cultivating solidarity is essentially impossible, and is without much merit, in any case. Members of opposed classes, even market buyers and sellers, can’t have real solidarity, for example, nor would they sensibly try to in a situation where the well being of one rests on losses for another. Nice guys finish last. But, in a system like parecon, this situation is reversed. Instead of institutions pitting actors against one another, institutions entwine all our interests. I benefit if the average job complex becomes more fulfilling, and so do you, and so I have an interest in reducing the most onerous conditions of work in society – even if I don’t happen to have a job that includes those conditions. My average job complex will get better if the worst conditions are improved. Similarly, I benefit and so does everyone else benefit, if the average work time per person declines, if the average social product per citizen climbs, and so on, assuming there are no offsetting and greater adverse implications, for example, for the environment. And therein lies the basis for solidarity and even mutual aid. We learn to respect and appreciate one another, and, as well, to take pleasure in diversity which enables vicarious enjoyment and learning from paths that others take but which we don’t have time for. The other, even who we don’t know and are not near, is not a threat but an ally in society, and a source of insights and vicarious enjoyments.

In a society where social roles are arrayed hierarchically so that some endure boring and degrading circumstances while others are empowered by their tasks and rule, the former must suffer home life and schooling that prepares them to accept and even consider as natural or at least as deserved or unavoidable their plight. Thus schools teach teach most students, currently, to endure boredom and take orders. But in a parecon, the opposite situation exists. Since we will all work at a balanced job complex whose more creative aspects we will choose in accord with our talents and dispositions, we all need to have our preferred capacities nurtured and developed. Home life, school, and also time on the job will all foster rather than curb our inclinations and capacities, precisely so that we become more confident, learned, aware, and capable – a transformation in everyone’s interest in a parecon, but threatening to those who rule current societies.

Just as eliminating or even seriously reducing sexism allows women to access far more of their capacities, so too does eliminating class division do the same for roughly 80% of populations previously subordinated into artificially disempowering work lives. Simultaneously, the 20% who would have dominated by way of their monopoly on empowering work situations and tasks must become able to operate equitably and fairly, this being their only social option – bringing them a new and far healthier mindset, as well.

The overall point of parecon is to have a classless economy that fosters and utilizes self management, that has balanced job complexes, and that remunerates equitably for a fair distribution of circumstances and social product. Parecon delivers a society entirely unlike what we now endure, and we will all need to be prepared and eager to contribute. This in turn means our training will differ, our confidence will differ, and our life choices will differ as well. It also means our mindsets and values will differ, as well as what we do daily and what we are able to enjoy and contribute. 

We can’t now know every respect in which life will transform. But the point is, humans being free, humans contributing and participating, humans sharing and empathizing, humans mutually aiding and exploring, will treat one another so differently than now, have such different needs and responsibilities than now, and enjoy such different benefits than now, that they will see one another and social conditions and themselves far differently than we do now – and daily responsibilities and tasks, as well as attitudes and habits, will dramatically alter in accord. This should occasion no surprise, since it is, after all, the purpose of making sweeping changes in the first place. 


  1. avatar
    Joel Isaacs February 24, 2014 8:15 pm 

    Thanks. For communicating these ideas with others, it’s very helpful to have this condensed, shorter version of the implications of participatory economics.

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