An Open Letter to DSA

Dear DSA,

Your priority attention to all sides of life and not only economy, your incredible growth, and your non sectarian, non vanguardist orientation have induced me to revive my very long since dormant connection, to join anew. However, I am confused on a key point.


DSA’s Economics?

Which among the many existent socialist visions has preponderant or even modest support in DSA? What is DSA’s ongoing exploration of socialist possibilities exploring?

I assume nearly all DSA members agree with DSA’s stated view that socialism rejects “private profit, alienated labor, race and gender discrimination, environmental destruction, and brutality and violence in defense of the status quo.” I imagine an overwhelming majority also favor workers’ control, just rewards, solidarity, participation, classlessness, and ecological sustainability or stewardship.

To ultimately attain all that, DSA’s institutional goals seem to include public, state, or social ownership, workplace democracy, and allocation by markets and/or democratic planning.

But do we investigate new norms for distribution of income and new methods for decision making? Do we envision a new division of labor and new allocation beyond markets and central planning?

For example, are we sufficiently considering self management by workers and consumers councils in place of authoritarian decision making?

Should we more centrally consider job definitions that comparably empower all workers in place of a corporate division of labor that disempowers eighty percent of workers?

Are we sufficiently considering remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor in place of remuneration for property, power, or even output?

And should we more aggressively consider allocation by participatory, decentralized, self managed, cooperative planning in place of markets and/or central planning?

If these aims are irrelevant for present activism, then it may well make sense to delay considering them. But what if each of these aims is essential to attracting support? And what if each of these aims would helpfully inform current activism and organization building?


Four Economic Focuses

Council self management: Regarding self management by workers and consumers councils, I suspect everyone in DSA would agree that authoritarian decision making is antithetical to every worthy socialist aspiration and certainly to DSA-desired workers control. On the other hand, perhaps not everyone in DSA would agree that one person one vote majority rule is also ill conceived.

But consider deciding personal consumption. Should there be a democratic vote about that? Or suppose in a workplace you have a work area. You want to include a picture of your spouse. Should fifty percent of the workforce plus one decide if you can? Or suppose that in your workplace you are part of a work team that needs to settle on how to schedule tasks among yourselves. Should a majority of the workplace’s entire workforce vote on that?

It turns out that in actual practice most socialists believe optimal decision-making is people having a say in decisions in proportion to the degree they are affected by them.

We should each have sole say over our breakfast and what socks to wear today. But the entire workforce should decide work’s overarching rules, intended output, and general requirements. Then, given that, my team should decide our shared schedule. And I should arrange my desk.

If we were to all together favor self management, it would follow that sometimes majority rule will make best sense, sometimes two thirds, and sometimes consensus. Options for deliberation and vote tallying would become flexible tactics. Self management would become the guiding principle. Councils and federations of councils would become the means for workers and consumers to express, deliberate, and tally their preferences.

But even if most members of DSA came to favor council-based self management, would we have reason to assert it in current economic vision? Or would it be a second or third order detail we wouldn’t yet need to assert?

Well, what if we need to assert self management as a goal to make credible that we really seek folks individually and in concert cooperatively controlling their own lives? What if we need to assert it now to learn how to enact inspiring decision making in our own practice and to determine what other features a worthy socialist economy needs to facilitate self management? Might exploring the merit of advocating self management then make current sense?

Of course, even if it does, various questions might arise. Shouldn’t the best decision-makers have more say? Can everyone contribute to decision-making without decisions suffering? Can self management be efficient? What happens to expertise? Such questions would be for us to explore to evaluate whether to support self management as a defining feature of favored socialism.

Balanced job complexes: A second new feature perhaps worth current DSA attention might be to replace a corporate division of labor with what its advocates call balanced job complexes.

To have workers control, much less self management, workers must not just have the right but also be prepared to participate in decision-making. In light of that, consider the current familiar division of labor. It is typically called an unavoidable means to get work done. After all, we can’t each do everything so we must apportion a limited number of tasks into each job such that in sum everything gets done.

But what if the currently taken-for-granted corporate division of labor is grossly antithetical to self management, just rewards, solidarity, and classlessness? What if the corporate division of labor apportions tasks so that roughly twenty percent of jobs include mainly tasks that increase employees’ skills, knowledge of workplace relations, connections with other employees, confidence, and readiness to participate in deciding outcomes. And the other eighty percent include tasks that stultify employees’ skills, delimit their knowledge of workplace relations, fragment each worker from the rest, and reduce their confidence and readiness to participate in deciding outcomes.

In other words, what if by segregating empowering and disempowering tasks the corporate division of labor establishes a class division between an empowered coordinator class and a disempowered working class? And what if retaining a corporate division of labor even while getting rid of private ownership elevates the coordinator class to rule?

If so, then the corporate division of labor intrinsically extinguishes self management, violates just rewards, and destroys solidarity. It prepares and equips coordinator class employees to set agendas and determine policies, while it delimits and denies working class employees to obey.

But could a new economy do better? It could, but only if it solves the underlying problem which is the contrary preparedness and inclinations of coordinator class and working class employees as they are schooled by the corporate division of labor.

Put differently, if the corporate apportionment of empowering and disempowering tasks to make employees either prepared to rule or prepared to be ruled is the underlying problem, might a different apportionment of tasks into jobs be the solution?

Instead of apportioning empowering tasks to a narrow set of empowering jobs, perhaps socialism should apportion empowering tasks so that all jobs are comparably empowering and therefore all employees are comparably prepared and inclined to participate in self managed decision making. With that choice, the coordinator class versus working class economic division would disappear because the economic relations producing it would disappear.

Of course, thinking further about this, many issues might arise such as can the eighty percent of all employees who now do rote, repetitive, disempowering jobs successfully do jobs that contain an average degree of empowering tasks? Will having the twenty percent who now do overwhelmingly empowering work instead do a fair share of disempowering work cost too much in lost output? Or can such losses be more than offset by the liberation of talents and energies of the other eighty percent?

Resolving these and other concerns are preconditions for actually advocating balanced job complexes. But given the cost of class rule and the impossibility of self management for a population eighty percent of which is systematically made unprepared and disinclined to participate, shouldn’t addressing the ills of the corporate division of labor and the potential benefits of balanced job complexes be part of determining the key components of our socialist vision?

Equitable Remuneration: A third feature perhaps critical to defining a worthy socialism is greater clarity about what should constitute just rewards for work. Everyone says we want justice, but what does socialism deem just?

A worthy approach would certainly notice that to reward property produces class rule and gargantuan income differentials.

To be worthy an approach should certainly emphasize that to reward property produces class rule and gargantuan income differentials. But perhaps to be worthy an approach should should also emphasize that to reward market bargaining power establishes a thuggish basis for interpersonal relations and destroys solidarity. More, because power conveys income and income conveys more power, rewarding market bargaining power leads to endlessly growing disparities.

Perhaps a new approach should also question rewarding output per se. After all, inborn talents, capacities, learned skills, available tools, and even qualities of workmates affect output, but why should being born with genes yielding exceptional strength, speed, voice, or mind be rewarded with wealth in addition to the luck of being gifted? Why should learned skills be rewarded beyond earning normal income for time spent learning? Why should happening to work in an industry where you get to use highly productive equipment or where you happen to work with highly productive mates be rewarded? Perhaps a new approach should note that these forms of reward each generate injustice, not equity.

Perhaps a new approach should say it is just, reasonable, and ethically sound that a person receive more income for working longer, harder, or under worse conditions so long as the person’s work contributes to desired output. I should not get income for doing something I am so ill equipped for that my doing it doesn’t contribute to socially valued output. But if I do more of something that is socially valued and I do not waste time, energy, and resources perhaps I should get more income. And if I suffer harsh conditions to get it done, again, perhaps I should get more income.

With this equitable remuneration, folks would get an average income for average duration, intensity, and onerousness of work. Folks could earn more than average consumption by arranging with their workplace council to work longer or harder or to endure some worse conditions. Folks could enjoy more leisure than average by arranging to work fewer hours to receive less income. People would control their own leisure/labor trade off. Property, power, skills, and even output would not affect income.

We might agree that such an approach would be equitable and practical. That it would provide an incentive to do socially valued work for as long, and as hard, and when needed enduring harsher than average conditions, as we wish to attain desired consumption. That it would not not reward what people have no say over – such as their genetic endowment or their access to good tools.

But even so, in considering whether to advocate equitable remuneration, many issues might arise such as would people still become doctors when doctors earn like everyone else? Would there be ways to game the system? Would people exert sufficiently without ever greater riches to pursue? Would people exert without the threat of poverty to avoid? Could incentives to improve tools, skills, and work conditions all arise collectively without sacrificing personal well being or equity?

Resolving these and other concerns would be preconditions for advocating equitable remuneration. But given the cost of inequities in society, and therefore the cost of rewarding property, output, or power – shouldn’t addressing the potential benefits of equitable remuneration be part of our determining the key components of a worthy socialist vision?

Participatory Planning: A fourth feature perhaps needing greater attention is clarity about what means of allocation would subvert DSA aims, and about what means would advance DSA aims, and therefore about what means would be suitable for any worthy socialism.

Despite that most economists label markets neutral, and despite that many socialists at least abide and think inevitable either markets or central planning, a contrary participatory claim is that by its very definition and intent central planning quite obviously violates self management, subverts equity, and imposes coordinator class rule. And markets are arguably even worse because even without owners, markets remunerate bargaining power, create a rat race in which nice folks finish last, destroy self management by supporting coordinator class dominance, foster competitive dumping and gauging, and bury sustainability among mountains of garbage and clouds of climate destroying pollution.

One can easily demonstrate all this with endless evidence and logical analysis, but is that really necessary for folks in DSA? I suspect we all know that these two typically championed modes of allocation are each rotten to the core. I suspect we don’t openly reject them and aggressively pursue alternatives to them only because we feel there is no alternative so we need to make the best of an unavoidable situation. The thing is, there is an alternative, participatory planning in place of markets and central planning. Perhaps this is already what DSA favors when it suggests democratic planning. In any case, the idea is simple, though the details get somewhat complex.

In participatory planning, workers and consumers councils and federations of councils would make known their desires, react to the cumulative desires of others, and do it again and again, collectively arriving at a plan by cooperatively negotiating outcomes. And this decentralized, self managed planning would occur in context of and furthering other defining elements of a worthy socialism.

Of course, the means of using various techniques to average requests over large constituencies, the means to make midstream corrections, and the means to assess direct but also indirect effects to arrive at prices and parallel qualitative information able to together guide choices into mutual accord are beyond being fully communicated in an open letter, though they have been widely explored in longer presentations.

But here is the thing. Suppose we were looking at an endless future of more and more oil extraction or coal burning or both together. We would hear advocates of each option ceaselessly clamor that we must choose oil, coal, or both. Nonetheless, we would know that each of these options or any combination of them is a road to total disaster. Then suppose a tiny movement proposed renewable clean energy production, as indeed happened, decades ago. They would be cast as crazy, self serving, delusional purveyors of nonsense. But surely we would have to hope they were right. Surely we would have to think it through and decide for ourselves rather than blindly, passively accepting the unchallenged advice of those wedded to an unquestionably disastrous path.

And so it is that a great many people likely inside and surely outside DSA now say we can only favor markets, central planning, or some combination of the two. And off to the side a few folks say hold on, to attain justice, solidarity, self management, classlessness, and ecological survival a third approach that emphasizes negotiated allocation.

Surely we should seriously assess the new option. Surely we should strive to understand, refine, and if need be enrich it. Surely we should not simply settle for either corrupting corrosive markets or soul-crushing central planning because advocates of each ceaselessly say there is no alternative.

So, in sum, to reject institutions which we already know would subvert our hopes and to honor values which we already know are essential to attaining our hopes, shouldn’t we seriously explore decision making, division of labor, incomes, and allocation?

Someday Maybe, But Why Now?

Well, perhaps someday we should seriously explore those matters, some may reply, but what’s the rush? Can’t all this visionary concern about future institutions wait until the issue arises spontaneously during the act of actually winning and constructing new relations? Isn’t today’s pressing task just to win gains that improve current lives while we also prepare the way to win still more gains? Isn’t that a sufficient current focus?

We fight for some immediate gain. Can we all agree that we should address the involved issues in ways that establish understanding and arouse desires and develop organization related to seeking longer run goals for the same issues? Isn’t that how we make our short run campaigns more than dead end patch work? But doesn’t that imply we need vision of the sorts suggested.

For example, fighting for higher wages, if we had the aims we have discussed, we would also seek to develop desires for income for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued work, and we would reject income for property, bargaining power, or even for talents, tools, or output more generally.

With the alternative approach, fighting for higher wages for custodians in a university, say, or for technicians and cleaners in a hospital, we should, to the extent we could, ask why they get less than professors at the university or than doctors in the hospital, and not solely why they don’t get the new hourly wage we are demanding. Our aim should become to not only win valuable immediate gains, but to also arouse desires leading toward our ultimate goal. We win a new wage, we celebrate. Then we move on to fight for full equity.

Current reality poses immediate needs of workers on a farm, say, or of residents in a polluted community. Current reality also reveals possible paths by which those workers and residents could apply sufficient pressure to win associated gains. But for those workers and residents to seek more than limited gains, shared vision needs to empower them with full values that legitimate the more complete gains they ultimately desire. And shared strategy needs to indicate paths of action the workers and residents can undertake.

While fighting to remove some controls over workers in a plant, for example, a participatory approach says we should also discuss and move toward self management and workers councils.

While fighting for better conditions for workers vis a vis managers, a participatory approach says we should also discuss and seek balanced job complexes.

While fighting for restraints on market madness and for laws punishing anti-ecological dumping, a participatory approach says we should also discuss and model and even move to partially implement participatory planning.

And while fighting for an array of gains such as a green new deal, a participatory approach says we should also talk about the array of still more radical features that constitute our full vision and have our movements favor those greater gains.

Similarly, seeking immediate gains, we should certainly seek to create efficient and effective enough organization to help win those gains. But more, a participatory approach says we should seek organization able to teach about, inspire support for, and even foreshadow and melt into what we desire for the future. We should seek organization that employs balanced jobs, empowers all participants, and employs self management. If we have paid positions, we should establish equitable remuneration. When we work with others, we should utilize cooperative negotiation to plan intersecting efforts.

We can’t do everything at once, and some things take many steps to even begin to accomplish, but these priorities don’t arise at all when movements fight only for immediate gains. They don’t arise at all when movements fight only for something they call socialism which, however, includes no reference to workers self management, balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration, or participatory planning.

Consider a socialist media project or electoral organization. For the media project to be participatory there should be no owner/publisher (or chief fund raiser) who calls the shots. Beyond that, there should also be no few empowered workers who dominate the rest. There should be equitable remuneration and self managed decision making. And in the electoral organization, the same should hold.

In both cases, our aim for this approach would be to test favored new structures that can remove from the media or electoral work exploitative and authoritarian relations that sap creativity.

Our aim would be to avoid internal class relations and to correct that in left media the issue of coordinator/worker relations gets virtually no treatment and in left electoral work many working class grievances and desires are ignored or even ridiculed.

Finally, if we favored an alternative participatory approach of the sort here intimated, we would say that activism as well as organization should enlarge worker’s confidence and decision making skills and utilize their leadership, all analogously to similar priorities for Blacks, Latinx, and women.

When possible this might entail providing services like daycare and transport. It would always entail orienting movement rhetoric, discussion, outreach, and demands to involve and empower working people even while it would also welcome people from the coordinator class, but only while challenging their sense of class entitlement.

All these various strategic implications may seem modest when spelled out as succinctly as here. But if we think of movement organizations, campaigns, and projects, as well as of what movements say to their audiences, and how movements say it, and even who movements most often address, my guess is we will see that these implications actually extend well beyond formulations that emphasize only dispossessing owners and enlarging government intervention in economics.

I have offered this overly long open letter, Dear DSA, to suggest that we who seek socialism soon explore all these matters. And fear not. Even if we were to agree on all of it, suitably revised and enhanced, our newly shared vision would still remain, as it ought to, very far from a blueprint. It would not exceed what we can sensibly now know. It would not encroach on the rights and responsibilities of future citizens to decide their own life paths. Instead, our explorations and whatever agreements might emerge from them would not violate but would instead move a little further toward ensuring that those future rights and responsibilities exist for all.


  1. avatar
    James September 12, 2019 11:00 pm 

    Be interesting to see if there is any response to this at all. I am pleased that you affirmed, reaffirmed or confirmed, the fact that Participatory Economics is NOT a blueprint, because that belief, in my opinion, seems the driving force behind so many left visionary organisations or projects, and others less specifically focused in this regard, ignoring Parecon and it’s clear, coherent and concise insights…acknowledging it to some extent but basically, and I am sorry but I have to say this, flipping it aside with an arrogant wave of the hand, or consigning it to the dark recesses of left consciousness, in favour of somewhat vague notions.

    It is a travesty really. Parecon ignored in favour of some kind of amorphous vague pluralistic socialist vision/s that will somehow emerge, or self-emerge, out of a bunch of disconnected, regionally and geographically, improvised stirrings of community economics around the world. Ones that most ordinary people haven’t even heard of.

    There is something perhaps not absurd, but arrogantly self deceiving about statements like these by John Jordan,

    “Our movements are trying to create a politics that challenges all the certainties of traditional leftist politics, not by replacing them with new ones, but by dissolving any notion that we have answers, plans or strategies that are watertight or universal. . . . We are trying to build a politics . . . that acts in the moment, not to create something in the future but to build in the present, it’s the politics of the here and now.”

    No, I take it back, there is an absurdity about it. I’m a free improvising musician and know about “building in the here and now”, I just call it making shit up!

    And I am sure that whatever “solutions” or ideas the DSA has for economic revolution go not much further than some type of GND, with a little community economics on the side…and I bet none of it has been really thoroughly thought through. Just sumpin’ ya gotta have in ya manifesto! I have no doubt in my mind that this would be the case…not to mention that the membership is probably not even closely unified on any coherent general plan regarding GND’s and what comes after. If it is I apologise.

    The world needs a GND now, not just in one nation. And one cannot keep extending on the time limits each new IPCC report makes clear, in no uncertain terms, we cannot continue to ignore. But this is what every left org does…it capitulates and ignores.

    A GND is needed now, not tomorrow but with a caveat. One that Tom Wetzel addressed in an essay some time ago regarding the danger of centralising that much power in the state.


    And Wetzel’s essay is in complete sync with Michael Albert’s here. I am less conciliatory (and less nice in general because this is just a comment), regarding time span so not so much in agreement with this statement of Michael’s.

    “If these aims are irrelevant for present activism, then it may well make sense to delay considering them.”

    Fuck that. Present day activism is no different than it was and is pursuing nothing different really than the activism of the past nearly 200 yrs, since say, Owen and Proudhon. Yeah, the salad dressing has changed but the salad is essentially the same. But the difference now is significant. It’s nearly 2020 and the revolutionary left, and humanity, is running out of time and that means there can be no waiting for the right moment.

    Pull your fucking socks up all you serious organisations, like the DSA, and projects and unify your efforts…AND take up seriously, the clear, concise and coherent institutional economic alternatives offered by PARECON – NOT A BLUEPRINT – to help guide, along with other ideas EQUALLY, the direction in which we should be going. NOW.

  2. Elizabeth Marxsen September 10, 2019 4:54 pm 

    Such a good letter. These are ideas that are fundamental to a socialist vision. They are lost in the frenzy of electioneering. The best and most organic way to fine-tune and beta-test them is as put into practice at DSA.

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