Being Left, Part Three: Offering Vision

In December 2013 David Marty did an extensive interview with Michael Albert. We present it in nine parts – of which this is the third. Other parts address: Radicalization, Media, Debating Vision, Venezuela, Occupy and IOPS, Fanfare, Chomsky, and a conclusion. 


Participatory Economics

You are known for being the co-author with Robin Hahnel of Participatory Economics, a vision or model for post capitalist economics. When and how did you two meet? 

Robin was a college roommate of my high school best friend. They were a year ahead of me. So in my senior year in high school in 1965, visiting my close friend at Harvard and staying in their room, I met Robin. It was a coincidence of mutual friendships.

Unlike Hahnel, you’re not now an economist. How did you arrive at that? Was it a handicap not to have studied economics? 

Robin was taking lots of economics as an undergrad and then later in graduate school he continued. In contrast, before doing grad school, I had only taken one economics course at MIT and that was a debacle because I couldn’t make heads or tails of what seemed to me to be nonsense. Nonetheless, after a time out of college, I went back to grad school in economics. I guess I thought I would teach, like Robin was planning to do, but it didn’t turn out as planned because I took a side trip into media – South End Press – and have been involved in media ever since. 

I had gone to study economics as a result of being recruited by Herb Gintis and Sam Bowles. I knew them politically largely from having gone to the Harvard Ed. School, where they taught, and from having worked with them there. So when they went to U. Mass. Amherst to help build a radical economics department, they asked me to come too, as a student. It was a complement and I figured this is how I will eat, along with whatever other activism I do. 

The program with Sam and Herb, among other radical faculty who were there, was largely radical. Not having had more mainstream economics preliminary to going there was, in my opinion, an advantage. I had less to unlearn.

Why did you devote yourself more to economics than any other aspect of social life? Where did you both stand regarding your understanding of the economy? Did you start off as Marxists? 

That I went to grad school in economics was largely an accident of circumstances, as noted above. But things like sociology, say, held no allure for me. At least economics had some prospect of math mattering, and I was good at math. 

Going in, my understanding of the economy was rudimentary. Robin had learned Marxism in Harvard undergrad classes. I learned it, initially, from Robin in a long afternoon while I was still at MIT. Then I read a lot. Neither of us were ever explicitly Marxist in the sense that our worldview began and ended with that framework. 

What were some intellectual inspirations for parecon?

I would say Kropotkin and Bakunin, and also lesser known folks like Rudolf Rocker and Anton Pannokoek, among others in the anarchist and libertarian socialist traditions. However, I think Chomsky was probably key. Remember, Robin and I were in Cambridge, and I was close to Noam, and our entry point to much of this material was by way of his references. And then there was his direct impact, as well. He wrote, during those times: “Social action must be animated by a vision of a future society, and by explicit judgments of value concerning the character of this future society.” That is precisely the parecon agenda: agree on shared values and establish an institutional vision able to deliver those values. 

Or, again in those times. Chomsky also wrote: “if the present wave of repression can be beaten back, if the left can overcome its more suicidal tendencies and build upon what has been accomplished in the past decade (the Sixties), then the problem of how to organize industrial society on truly democratic lines, with democratic control of the workplace and in the community, should become a dominant intellectual issue for those who are alive to the problems of contemporary society, and, as a mass movement for libertarian socialism develops, speculation should proceed to action.” That is, again, virtually a plan for our pursuit. 

And what about marxism per se?

For myself, I was actually skeptical and even critical of elements of marxism even at first hearing. For example, marxism had what I immediately took to be quite silly notions of people as having no underlying biological nature, and thus being infinitely malleable. Perhaps you have heard the phrase, “there is no such thing as human nature.” It is not worth going into here, probably, but I found that conception ridiculous as well as reactionary. For one thing, if people were infinitely malleable, then constructing a society which gives a relatively few people most power and wealth as long as one constructs the rest of society to cause all other people to welcome relative poverty and disempowerment (which, if people are infinitely malleable, should be quite achievable), would be ethically fine. Everybody would get what they want – albeit in settings designed to make them want what they get. 

The view also implies or could be taken to justify the idea that an elite literally should and even must manipulate social outcomes, which is quite consonant with vanguardist prescriptions. Of course, having implications we don’t like doesn’t make a claim wrong. Old age kills us, a claim with implications I don’t like, but a claim which is, nonetheless, true. However, saying there is no innate human nature, luckily, was not only reactionary, but it was also wrong. It would imply that a human could give birth to a chipmunk – or, having birthed a child, if you prefer, the child could be brought up to become a bumble bee. This is silly, to be sure, but it is what it actually means to say humans are infinitely malleable, which was a popular phrase from the times. Perhaps it is germane to remember what I said earlier about people often believing nonsense to fit in with their crowd.

Okay, suppose we scale back the assertion that there is no human nature to not mean that people are infinitely malleable, but rather to mean that we are just very malleable. Well, what does that mean? Does it mean, lots of personality traits are possible? Of course that is true – but no one denies it is true. Does it mean we can bring someone up to not need oxygen? Of course that is false, and no one denies it is false. Does it mean that knowing what is wired in, or is largely wired in – and what isn’t – would be useful? Of course it would be useful. 

It turns out that like many general and far reaching claims that people rhetorically elevate as if they are some kind of rarely recognized wisdom central to some perspective, instead, just a little thought reveals that there isn’t much in this claim. If you don’t get specific you get silliness – like some adherents deciding that since their gospel is that there is no human nature, then there must be no language faculty, say, or no underlying drive for freedom and participation. If you do get specific, however, then everyone agrees with each other, and the silly implications based on confused extrapolations disappear, but so too does the idea that there is some great wisdom afoot.

Robin and I went on from such preliminary stuff, probably propelled by our anarchistic inclinations and by learning we had garnered from Chomsky’s teaching, to also reject more subtle aspects of marxism that mattered more to real social possibilities and proposals. 

For example, we quickly rejected economism – which was thinking that economics was paramount and fundamentally molded all else,  in turn being only secondarily influenced by anything else. This view too, once we thought it through, seemed almost silly. Any argument that economics was paramount to the degree that everything else simply accorded with it – of which I would hear many such arguments in those times – could be turned around to make the same claim, I felt, about culture or gender or state relations being paramount, and the rest, including economics, complying. So it seemed to me that a greater symmetry of influence – certainly not perfect, but considerable – was the actual situation. 

This led in turn to the view that a few aspects of life are so central to determining options and so impactful on who we can be, that they are each and all paramount and each and all tend to both mold and get molded by the rest. The areas with that importance, we felt, were economy, kinship, culture, and polity. This is roughly what is currently called intersectionality by some folks, I believe, but our allegiance to it was settled forty years ago, and was formalized about ten years later, or so, for example in the multi author book Liberating Theory. So looking at society or history and paying too much attention to one of the areas and too little to others, largely ignoring their mutual affects, was highly unwise. 

There was another reason to take a multifaceted approach – which was that in the world of politics it was necessary to do so if we were to create trusting and mutually beneficial ties among diverse constituencies. Robin and I may have gone further than most down this multi focus road, but we certainly weren’t alone in the choice. And this journey later fueled the participatory society approach to seeing economy as but one part of a larger picture. The multi focus approach still sometimes bothers some folks, but this awareness, overall, has become, I think, a largely preponderant view even though just a few decades back, we took a lot of flack for such claims, and they were not generally agreed.

But that wasn’t the end of it. We certainly took up and retained many basic marxist insights such as its anti capitalism and its less well known but also quite insightful anti market aspects, it’s focus on institutional relations, it’s attention to classes and class rule – and its militance and activism embodied in the idea that “the point is not merely to understand the world, but to change it.” But it wasn’t long before qualms about what I was reading launched me on a campaign to understand Marxism much better, and to clarify what so troubled me. Thus, over time, I realized, with Robin, that my biggest problem went beyond exaggeration of economics and silly notions of there being no human nature – views that many marxists jettisoned too, I should add – to somewhat more subtle and ultimately even more damning concerns about marxism’s understanding of prices and power and especially classes. 

For example, consider the way that different groups of people are very nearly forced by their economic positions to have certain broadly shared interests and associated agendas and conceptions. Was this type of class difference due solely to property relations, or could class difference also arise from the division of labor? 

It was this line of thinking that led to the idea of a coordinator class that monopolized empowering work and to the idea of an economy that could elevate that class to ruling status. Robin was in the midst of all the same influences and travelled, I think, pretty much the same path I did, with us affecting each other, of course. And again, as with our leap to a multi-focus orientation, we were not alone in adopting a new approach to class. Distant antecedents included Bakunin, for example. And a more proximate powerful prod to us was Barbara and John Ehrenreich’s essay on the professional and managerial class, which South End Press published as the focus of a book with many contending essays called Between Labor and Capital, one of which, was titled “Ticket to Ride: More Locations on the Class Map,” and written by Robin and I. In that essay, we solidified our attention to what we called coordinator class relations and rule, where the coordinator class is high level managers, engineers, accountants, and doctors, who largely do only empowering work, as compared to the working class who largely do rote and tedious work – including our beginning to think about what would be needed to prevent that division. And that led inexorably to participatory economics.

Perhaps we can come back to the origins, but, for now, what are the key features of Participatory Economics?

There are only a few. 

  1. Self managing workers and consumers councils as the main venues of economic decision making. 
  2. Balanced job complexes as the way of apportioning labor. Each person does a comparable combination of empowering and disempowering tasks in their overall work responsibilities so that no one is elevated by their work to being generally dominant or subordinate, thereby overcoming the coordinator/worker class division.
  3. Remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor as the norm and scaffolding of income determination. This is equitable, claims parecon, whereas approaches that reward power, property, and even output, are not.  
  4. Participatory cooperative negotiation of economic inputs and outputs by worker and consumer councils, plus equitable remuneration, plus actors doing balanced jobs, plus various secondary features to make it all work, as the means of allocation – which we called participatory planning. This, claims parecon,  provides accurate valuations and self managing participation.

Balanced Job Complexes

Can we fill out some of those aspects a little? Why favor balanced job complexes, for example?

Suppose everything else about an economy is excellent, but you retain a corporate division of labor so that 80% of the workforce still does rote and subordinate work that exhausts them and leaves them with no overarching knowledge of workplace relations, no familiarity with decision making, and few social skills, while 20% do all the empowering work as lawyers, doctors, managers, engineers, etc., and are by their activity made continually more aware, more socially skilled, and more confident. In that case, in decision making venues, whatever shape those venues may have and even including the workers councils that we propose, the empowered workers will dominate outcomes. They will set agendas. They will do virtually all the talking. They will have nearly all the relevant information. They will have the habits of evaluation and assessment. They will have the confidence. And they will, by way of these advantages – as well as due to the structural requirement that they do so – exert their wills far more than people doing only rote labor and following orders will be prepared to or even inclined to exert theirs. 

More, this imbalance will get worse with each passing week, month, and year. So the 20% will steadily decide more and more outcomes essentially alone, and, in time, will also decide to violate earlier agreed equity norms to accrue to themselves more income. This is the class picture of centrally planned and market socialism, and if you add to the coordinator/worker mix, owners on top of both, it is then also the class picture of capitalism. So it turns out that the corporate division of labor violates classlessness and self management due to fostering rule by a coordinator class above workers. 

So, if you desire classlessness, self management, and solidarity, then you need a way to ensure that everyone is made comparably able to participate in workplace and consumption decisions as well as in the general life of the economy and society. And that is what balanced job complexes are for. 

Parecon doesn’t have a fifth of the workforce doing all the daily managing and designing and conceiving, with four fifths simply carrying out assignments, fitting into designs, and excluded from thought. Instead, parecon has everyone doing a fair mix of empowering and disempowering tasks, and everyone therefore able to comparably and confidently participate in decisions.

Do you get people doubting that this can work, or that it would be desirable? What do they say and what do you say back?

The most common concern about balanced job complexes is that while having a balanced apportionment of empowering and disempowering work would be morally fair and just, the approach would cause operational disaster. The critic says that in a parecon using this approach, everyone would have to be a doctor, lawyer, etc. But since most people are not capable of that, and since most would screw it up, the results would be disastrous. We would have a morally enlightened catastrophe.

My usual reply is that the criticism partly misunderstands balanced job complexes and partly reflects an understandable but wrong assumption about people. First, the not understanding part, is that with balanced job complexes we wouldn’t all do everything. We are not all surgeons and all engineers. Rather, some would do one thing as the interesting and empowering part of their overall work, and some would do another thing, but no one would do only empowering things. So if we consider everyone who is now doing surgery, they might, for example, each do half as much surgery as now, or even a third. Thus it is true we would have less surgery coming from the current surgeons after switching to parecon because in parecon they would do other things in addition to doing less surgery. But we would make up for their lost surgery because everyone who was previously only doing rote and tedious work, will, in a parecon, have training to do more empowering activity too – and some of those people will do surgery, thus bringing the total amount of surgery back up to what it was before and likely quite a bit higher. The critic, who is now flabbergasted, says, what the hell are you talking about? People who are now doing rote and tedious tasks are only able to do rote and tedious tasks. I don’t want them cutting me open. 

At this point, I will typically offer a little thought experiment. I will say imagine it is 1955 and we herd all the surgeons in the U.S. into a giant stadium. Looking in the stadium, what do you see? A little prodding and the critic says, I see all white men. I add, if you ask one of those surgeons why there are no women, blacks, latinos, etc., what does he say? The critic answers that the fellow says the others are incapable of doing surgery. I reply, okay, suppose you ask some women and blacks and latinos about the inhabitants of the stadium, what will they say, quite often? The same thing, comes the reply. And what was the truth, I ask? 

I add, without waiting for a reply, that the truth was that while it did look like all the folks who were not in the stadium couldn’t do surgery because of course it was true that they could not put down the mop they were currently holding or get out from behind the phone bank they were currently sitting at, or leave behind the assembly line post they were currently occupying, and simply walk into a hospital and do a heart transplant or fix a knee. But the reason why none of them could do surgery Tuesday after doing only rote work before Tuesday wasn’t that none of them could have become surgeons had they had ample training. Rather, it was that the sexist and racist structures of the time precluded their getting that training and therefore precluded their learning to do surgery and engineering and accounting and so on. 

On thinking about it, it turns out that decades ago everyone was largely convinced by appearances that the fact that there were no women surgeons wasn’t because a structure robbed more than half the population of their creative capacities, but was because women had no creative capacities. That belief wasn’t true, of course, but it looked true to almost everyone. And even now, even before we have fully overcome racism and sexism, it is indeed totally obvious that it wasn’t true. A little over half the people in medical school are now women. Basically, we now know that just as not all men but some lower number will be inclined and able to do surgery, the same holds for women and all other constituencies. So the rationale for the all white and all male stadium of surgeons was a giant lie. 

After that exercise, I have to get the critic to realize that the same thing holds for the 80% of the population now consigned to do rote labor outside the stadium – the working class. Often this is easy, but sometimes it takes some effort. I like to tell them to go listen to John Lennon singing working class hero, if they don’t get it. 

You asked earlier about antecedents. You can find similar concerns in Bakunin, among others who I mentioned earlier, including Rocker, say. Indeed this kind of insight was, I suspect, part of the battle between Bakunin and Marx and in any event, similar sentiments have always been an aspect of anti Leninist thought. I never saw the sentiments explicitly declared a problem of a third class, as Robin and I saw it, nor have I seen a proposal to redefine job composition as an explicit solution, as we proposed, but these additions were small steps to take.

Does this mean that professionals and managers, those who you call the coordinator class, are part of society’s problem and will oppose seeking participatory economics? 

It means that the structures which generate this coordinator class above workers are part of the problem, and that a desire to preserve those structures is part of the problem. 

It means that the coordinator class may choose to fight for its own benefit at the expense of those below, and thus be a part of the problem, or that the coordinator class, or many people in it, may develop respect for and solidarity with workers and realize that fairness as well as general social advance requires classlessness, and for all those reasons choose to fight alongside and become one with workers – seeking to become a single class, rather than two, divided unfairly.

It also means that anti capitalist agendas come in two broad forms, not only in one. One form seeks classlessness, and I would say, seeks participatory economic or other similar structures. Another form seeks to eliminate the property basis for capitalists to exist, but it also seeks to preserve the division of labor basis for the coordinator class to exist – and in the absence of owners, to rule. 

And yes, while both approaches will oppose the requisites of capital today, one is consistent with full liberation and the other is not. And this is not merely theory, it is evidenced by the experiences of struggle throughout the past. The coordinator, still oppressive approach, has, regrettably, been preponderant, yielding twentieth century non capitalist outcomes that have been called socialism by their adherents, but that I think are more accurately called coordinatorism by parecon’s advocates. 

And so this also means that strategies for attaining a better economy, as one part of attaining a better society, need to elevate working class leadership while challenging coordinator assumptions and especially coordinator structural advantages, even while also trying to attract the support and participation of coordinators – with their information and their learning – to join but not run the movement. The critical implication is that advocates of classlessness ought to seek coordinator involvement in ways that do not alienate or in any way subordinate workers. We should seek coordinator involvement in ways that do not interfere with developing true structures of self management, information dispersal, and so on. We should seek coordinator involvement, yes, but secondarily to seeking working class involvement.

These are very real issues, current and pivotal for attaining real successes leading toward classlessness, as compared to attaining what may look like steps forward, but which ultimately disempower most folks and elevate a new boss – not quite like the old boss, but also far from classlessness.


Equitable Remuneration

A second feature to summarize: why do you have what you call equitable remuneration for only duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued work? What about getting income for how much we produce?

Broadly, the reasoning is similar. If you want equity you have to figure out what it is. Is it people getting what their power allows them to grab? That is how markets in capitalism mainly operate, but clearly that is vile. For example, we don’t conduct our families on the basis of the strongest child taking the most. We are horrified at the idea that a big strong person should walk down the street taking people’s watches and shoes and so on. Yet, that is the way markets work, though with markets it is made to appear inevitable. If we are going to think beyond that kind of defeatism about possibilities, we have to reject power as a norm for remuneration, and I think it is fair to say everyone on the left does reject remuneration according to power.

What about giving people income because they own property and the property is involved in generating lots of product? Again, though some will disagree, I reject that on the grounds that I don’t think folks should become rich like Midas because they have  a deed to property in their pocket. Again, this is a very nearly universal view among anti capitalists, so, we can move on. 

What about remunerating for output? Should you get more of the social product – more income – because you, yourself, produce more stuff? At first glance that seems fair, and there are actually plenty of socialists who favor this as a norm – but if we look more closely, concerns arise. 

What if you and I work the same length of time, equally hard, under the same conditions, but my pile of product is larger because the equipment that I use is better than the equipment you use? Do we think that my getting more income due to the luck of my using better tools is equitable? What if I luckily have more effective workmates? What if I happen to be producing something very valuable and I am particularly gifted for doing so – perhaps I am Lebron James and I produce basketball images for people to watch, and folks like to see them. Should I earn a fortune on that account in a worthy system?

These are questions about our values. What do we think is moral? They take some exploration to reveal the implications of the different possibilities, and then we just have to decide which implications we like. What parecon arrives at after examining the implications of remunerating power, property, and output is that all three approaches generate vast disparities of income and, worse, the growing differences then morph into disparities in power and circumstance and then into still more disparity in income, in a depraved spiral. 

On the other hand, if someone works longer, harder, or under worse conditions, then parecon’s advocates feel it is equitable that they get more income, assuming they are creating products that people want. An examination of the implications of people earning income for these reasons shows that no unfair disparities result, and no means to accrue power emerges. Differences in income turn out modest and are also fair because those getting less income can enjoy more leisure or better conditions as an offsetting benefit.

Doesn’t this mean Sam won’t earn more and will even earn less for being really smart or great at something? Won’t that in turn mean we lose output when Sam decides not to be a doctor or lawyer or whatever, and to instead flip hamburgers on a hot stove at McDonalds for more pay. Wouldn’t really productive folks get short changed and thus decide not to use their talents?

First, in a parecon, Sam can in fact only work at a balanced job complex. That is the only kind of job available. He can’t only flip hamburgers. But to get at the heart of your concern, let’s set that aside for a moment. 

The key observation is probably to realize that getting short-changed is not something like getting hit in the head. The latter is objective. The former is always and only getting short-changed relative to some norm. If the norm that Sam believes in is to remunerate the value of one’s output, and if Sam is highly productive, then in a parecon you are right that Sam will think he is being short-changed, since he will get less than he produces. 

But so will Billy think he is getting short-changed if Billy instead believes in remuneration for power and Billy is stronger than everyone else in his workplace, but can’t get income simply by taking it. 

And so will Susan think she is short-changed if Susan believes in remuneration for property and Susan owns the workplace but can’t get income – profits – based on that, or really can’t even own it at all. 

And, in fact, and this is what the question typically ignores – not you, but others who ask it – Sarah will feel shortchanged too if she works long and hard and at bad conditions and Joe gets more income even while working fewer hours, less hard, and at better conditions, if Sarah believes in remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor. 

In others words, whether one is shortchanged or exploited depends on what we decide is fair. And parecon sees what is fair differently than advocates of capitalism or coordinatorism see it. 

There is another issue in your question, not about morality, per se – but about incentives. If we have pareconish remuneration will Sam with his talent for being a surgeon decide that he would rather flip hamburgers to make more income in the same amount of time on the job? Again, let’s set aside that in a parecon that option doesn’t even exist because all jobs are balanced so that Sam really has to decide if he wants the empowering part of his work to be surgery, which he likes a lot, or something else which he likes less than surgery. But, again, set that aside.

I ask Sam, consider that you are just getting out of high school. You are deciding what to do next. One option is that you can go into McDonalds and flip burgers for the next 45 years, and then retire. You will earn, let’s say, $30,000 a year. A second option is that you can go to college and medical school, then be an intern, and then be a full surgeon for the following 40 years, and then retire. You will earn, for the sake of the example, $500,000 a year all that time. You need to choose between these two options – and you would choose surgery, let’s say – but now, I am going to start to drop your salary, and I want to know when the incentive for you to use your talents for being a surgeon is so low that to escape the trajectory of college, medical school, being an intern, and then being a surgeon, you will instead start your lifelong career at McDonald’s right after High School.

The scenario is a thought experiment, but I have done this at talks with, all told, thousands of young students. Five minutes before posing the example, they were totally disdainful of equitable remuneration on incentive grounds. It would lead to no one wanting to be doctors, they aggressively claimed. Your economic vision is therefore absurd, they added, and they were accurately upholding their economic studies and the general economic messages they had heard, each of which make the same assertion. 

But then I start lowering the salary – $400,000 I say, and already many in the audience who were skeptical are smiling, realizing what is coming. No, you say, you are not ready to jump to McDonalds instead of college? Okay, how about $300,000, $200,000, $80,000, $60,000, $30,000 – and at this point I am typically interrupted by the pre med student who asks what the minimum income he could survive on is, because there is no way he will forego being a surgeon to be a hamburger flipper, unless he has no choice.

And what this little thought experiment reveals, and it never fails, is that if we just ask what a person needs an incentive for, it turns out that it is to work longer or harder or under worse conditions, but it is not to do creative work, make decisions, and use their talents. If you think a little longer, it also shows how it all works. Sam’s phrase “unless he has no choice,” is the give away. The low income earner is precluded from better options and therefore winds up choosing between McDonalds and Burger King based on salary, proximity to his home, etc., but not between flipping burgers and being a doctor – because being a doctor has been structurally ruled out by the terms of his life – like for the women outside the surgeon’s stadium, mentioned earlier. 

After the exercise, I only have to explain how if society is structured so that 80% are excluded from empowering work, it can seem like higher wages exist to elicit creativity – but as soon as jobs are balanced and everyone has options, it is clear that high wages existed only due to power relations, and are not needed as an incentive to do desirable work. 

At the risk of repeating a little – if you had to quickly summarize the broad ideas of participatory economics what would you say? I should note, I am asking partly for readers of the interview, of course, but also partly for myself – to see how you would do what I often find myself asked to do.

Participatory economics, often called parecon, is a classless economy that delivers the goods and services people desire plus delivering solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management for all participants, plus ecological wisdom and international peace. Parecon’s main institutions are:

  1. Workers and consumers self managing councils
  2. Equitable distribution of the social product in accord with the duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued work – plus, of course, a full age and health sensitive share for anyone who cannot work
  3. Allocation by the self managed choice of all participants via participatory planning which is the cooperative negotiation of inputs and outputs in light of full social costs and benefits by all those effected 
  4. Balanced job complexes wherein each worker does a comparably empowering mix of tasks as all other workers

 What about summarizing what you consider the relation of parecon to what folks call socialism or anarchism?

What has been called socialism in the Soviet Union, China, etc. had authoritarian decision making, labor’s product distributed based on bargaining power, markets or central planning for allocation, and corporate divisions of labor with about twenty percent of the participants (who I call the coordinator class) monopolizing empowering tasks so that from earlier being a class below capitalists but above workers, in the Soviet and other similar systems, the coordinator class becomes a new ruling class.  

It follows that for socialists who are wedded to what have been socialist institutional commitments, participatory economics is a contrary thing favoring very different institutions. On the other hand, for many contemporary socialists who reject the same structures parecon rejects, participatory economics is a vision they should favor, though they might choose to call it participatory socialism.

Anarchists, like parecon advocates, want classlessness, self management, etc., but most often fail to say how such ends would be achieved and persist. I believe anarchists should like participatory economics as a framework designed to deliver the aims they favor, but there is a recurring clash between parecon advocates and those anarchists who favor the norm “from each according to ability to each according to need” and who for that reason don’t like the idea that participatory economics has, instead, prices, budgets, and people getting incomes that are not based merely on their saying what they want, but are instead based on their stated needs and desires but mediated by their efforts and by social availability.

It follows that for anarchists wedded to a vague norm that in practice is unviable and in my view would not, in any case, achieve the underlying sentiments it is meant to achieve, participatory economics is a contrary thing. But for anarchists wedded to aims like equitable distribution, mutual aid, and self management, parecon is a vision that implements their desires. 


Attaining Parecon

Okay, again summarizing succinctly, what about attaining parecon?

Moving from an economics of inequity, zero sum conflict, and top down rule by owners, to an economics of mutual aid, participation, self management, equity, and classlessness must, to succeed, involve vast numbers of informed citizens. Therefore steps leading to such a new economy must, to be effective, arouse steadily more people to steadily more informed involvement in the vision’s implementation. 

I see two broad types of activity contributing to that. 

First, there could be struggles to attain gains within existing institutions. By how we seek these gains and sometimes also by their implications when we win them, these struggles seek to galvanize ever growing revolutionary commitments and capacity. The relevance of the vision to that type of activity is to inform the choice of short and medium term aims and especially to inform how we talk about those aims and construct movements and organizations to win them now and move ahead positively, later.

One could imagine some focuses for likely activism:

Job redefinition plus schooling and training innovations to make society’s division of labor fairer and less class driven, which, by the rhetoric employed and the effects of the changes, teach and spread the logic of balanced job complexes on the road toward classlessness

Decision procedure, transparency, and participation innovations which teach and spread the logic of and move workplaces and the broader economy on the road toward self management

Legal and other impositions restricting markets and generating local allocation alternatives and finally also more large scale approaches to collective cooperative negotiation of allocation, which teach and spread the logic of and move toward participatory planning

Second, in parallel with and both augmenting and being augmented by such struggles, there could also be efforts to create new institutions. These efforts would be small at first but later larger and finally would melt into the structures of the new society. Such innovations would immediately benefit those involved, but also, by the lessons they teach and the model they offer, propel movement growth. Again, the relevance of the vision to the activity is to inform the shape of what we build, so that the results are viable and worthy and also auger a better future.

And one could imagine possible new institutions we might create:

  • consumer and producer coops of all kinds – especially including balanced job complexes and moving toward negotiating transactions instead of using markets
  • schools and training centers
  • local housing projects
  • day care facilities
  • after and preschool programs
  • athletic teams and leagues
  • credit unions
  • neighborhood councils and communes

Whether building completely new structures, redefining old structures under new auspices, or fighting for and defending changes in old structures, struggles toward a new economy would seek immediate gains as well as to provoke increased desires for more change while also developing increased organizational means and growing numbers of committed activists ready to fight for more.

Regarding immediate pareconish priorities, I would say it makes sense to pursue any activities that can spark involvement, benefit people now, enlarge people’s desires for further changes, and enhance their commitment and their means to win those gains in the future. The key is therefore functioning with discussion and consciousness raising and organization and institution building all geared to persist and grow in strength.

What kinds of actual programmatic campaigns might emerge?

Some examples might be a campaign seeking a shorter work week plus associated redistribution of income so that the associated material benefits shift to the poor from the rich. Or perhaps there could be a campaign for better inclusion of all those who are affected by them into decision procedures in workplaces and more generally in society. Or perhaps a campaign for a massive enlargement of corporate taxes, or a campaign for enlarged and renovated public schools, or for a new approach to media, or for a gigantic socially self managed project for climate and energy sanity.

I should add that economics is certainly not alone important. Campaigns about gender, race, power, ecology, and war and peace, among other concerns, would augment and be augmented by more directly economic campaigns, including mutual aid among all the movements seeking the gains. 

Finally, another step I believe to be quite important and even central, is to begin developing local, national, and international organization to pursue such campaigns.

We will get to organizational aims, shortly. But first, I wonder, though we don’t currently live in a participatory society, we can easily find examples from today’s capitalist society of workers not being driven by financial incentives – in fact some studies even find, after a certain point, a negative relationship between the two. So there aren’t many people, outside of business schools and med schools perhaps, who would dispute the fact that the pursuit of mastery, excellence, and social recognition is often driven by something other than money, power, or any other material incentives (provided survival is not at stake of course). So my question is: Are there other things we can look at in today’s society that help you make your point? Or is today’s society so radically different that any attempt to find the values and institutions defined in parecon is inconceivable?

I think the values of parecon are all over current society. Literally at every turn we can see them, or at least generally so. So, take the idea of self management. Who doesn’t practice it, at least roughly, with their friends? 

You and four friends want to go to the movies, if someone has already seen something, or has some other strong reason for not wanting a particular movie – that option is typically rejected outright. The fact that it would be so bad for the person who already saw it, gives their opposition to seeing it anew, extra weight. 

Or where in society does anyone actually come out against solidarity or diversity? You have to be pathological to argue these are bad values. About equity, contrary to beliefs, almost the same thing holds. Even med students always say the reason society has to pay doctors tons is to get them to go to the otherwise way too harsh and demanding medical school. Okay, the claim is idiocy once one realizes that flipping burgers is a lot worse than being in medical school, but what is revealing is that one finds that when they actually make a case, they assert, albeit ludicrously, that the funds are deserved because the work is onerous. 

That said, I have to add that I also think workers currently doing rote and otherwise debilitating work are in fact typically driven to do so by financial needs because they have less onerous options foreclosed. Why else would they work at the very debilitating jobs they are doing?

But even beyond seeing how the pareconish values are quite natural to people who have even a modicum of personal choice, there are other examples too. Study has shown, as you say, that financial incentives don’t work as claimed, and that social incentives can be as powerful and even more powerful, of course all the more so in equitable contexts. 

Also, as but one more example, when people escape restraint and try to take over their workplaces or when they try to build new ones, they immediately enlarge participation and democracy, and even self management, and make wages more fair, often simply equalizing them all. The thing missing is often balanced job complexes and its absence also provides lessons, as we can see the harm the old corporate approach does even where people are committed to change. And there are other cases, too, where even a degree of effort to escape market logic exists which is evidenced by examples of people adopting local cooperative negotiation – which is actually fledgling participatory planning. Perhaps the most notable instance of this, currently, is seen in  many local efforts in Venezuela.


Internally Consistent?

When defending the values of a participatory society and their universal application, aren’t we ignoring other values from other cultures that might conflict with some of parsoc’s values, even while those different values certainly serve diversity. Let me give you an example to be clear: in most parts of Africa, allegiance is mostly ethnically determined. Before parliamentary democracy was force fed to those societies, the balance and the peace between ethnic groups was kept regardless of the size of each group. Now by introducing representative democracy the largest ethnic group is almost always the one that wins elections (excepting when there is foreign interference, which happens constantly) and electoral results are easily predicted with just 2 or 3 percentage points of margin of error. Do you think parecon’s values are universal in spite of that? 

What does it mean for a value to be universal? Well, the need for oxygen is universal among all people. Biology makes it so, and, generally speaking, saying that some value is universal can be saying it arises from human nature and that its violation would subvert humans.

On the other hand, let’s say everyone all over the planet uses forks to eat, or brushes their teeth before bed, or whatever. Now, if that were true, it would be cultural, not biological, and thus it would be a  different kind of universality. Yet interfering with that kind of universality, too, would feel and likely be oppressive, unless and until there were agreed better alternatives.

Now I happen to think that self management, diversity, solidarity, and equity are very likely universal in the biological sense – meaning that to abrogate these, other things equal, will be bad for human fulfillment and development. That doesn’t mean, however, that there will never be situations in which even these few values come into conflict with one another – or a situation in which even just one of the values seems to embody a contradiction. Such situations, I think, would often owe their existence to less than optimal social contexts, but that doesn’t mean they don’t or won’t exist. 

Take abortion. Some will say now, and probably some will say in a participatory society too, that having an abortion violates the self management of the unborn child. Others will say that outlawing abortion violates the self management of the parent. But notice that the dispute, at least when posed in this form – as compared to if one side is trying to subjugate women and doesn’t actually care about the unborn, or if the other side is trying to legitimate murder and doesn’t care about women – isn’t really about an underlying value, self management, but is instead about abiding self management’s implications in a particular context. 

Now let’s take your case. Let’s assume that what you say about relations among ethnic groups is accurate, at least in some case. How do we assess that situation? If we say that some society has to have one person one vote to determine its rulers, even before your concern we are already violating lots of parsoc values such as self management, diversity, etc. Rulers don’t convey self management, nor does one person one vote do so except on particular issues. 

As an example of values clashing, you point out that one person one vote decision making makes a mess of diversity and also participation where group allegiances are very strong and fears of incursion against groups are rife, whether the fear is warranted or not. But when that is true, I think it actually demonstrates a problem with one person one vote – which, of course, is a problem that is recognized by self management advocates and is indeed part of why they favor self management instead of one person one vote majority rule. 

Self management reduces or even eliminates the fear of a group being subordinated by majority vote of others not in that group, and thus also eliminates need for the minority group’s members to cast uniform votes without attention to any other issue. The group itself has rights due to being more affected by its own definition, and these rights are not threatened due to its being a minority. So I think real parsocish social relations would actually help solve rather than aggravate the specific problem you raise – and that is so even without noting that in a participatory society one doesn’t just transform the defining relations of economy and polity, but also of race and community definition more generally, and of kinship as well.

But still, let’s take your concern further. I assume your example wasn’t meant that that case would raise a problem for parecon but, instead, that some case could do so. Okay, let’s try to find such a case.

Suppose some minority community says that certain behavior is mandatory, or that some other behavior is precluded, and then suppose as well that parsoc values make difficult or even impossible the mandatory behavior, or they call forth the precluded behavior. Now we have a contradiction between group desires and explicitly parsoc values. What do we do about it? 

Well, there is no single answer. For example, suppose some minority community says you have to beat your children – or that you must provide sex to your spouse anytime you are ordered to do so. Society says, no, that is forbidden. Or, alternatively, suppose a minority says you cannot attend school, or you cannot have an abortion – and society says you must attend school and you can have an abortion. Now suppose you are also able to trace these conflicts to a contradiction between underlying values – though I doubt that you will be able to do that, honestly, but let’s say you can. Okay, in that case, I agree there is a difficult problem to work out. Regarding abortion, to take that example, one can certainly freely choose to be in a group within a participatory society that forbids abortion for its members since parsoc doesn’t say that everyone has to have abortions – for example. But one must also be free to leave that group. And the group can’t impede people outside itself. However, more in accord with your concern, one cannot be in a group that says that kids cannot attend school but must, instead, for example, spend all day making meals for the chief of the community or all day doing other child labor, which is itself ruled out in the participatory society. 

That is, society may put limits on a community’s choices, as it may put limits on individual’s choices, each in pursuit of everyone being able to thrive, but I think what we will find is that in a participatory society if there are any communities that desire to have what the broader society would deem immoral or even forbidden, such a community would more often than not suffer so great a loss of members that it would tend to disappear without intervention. I would suggest, in any case, that a participatory society offers a better context for resolving such problems than any other social framework does, at least that I have ever heard of. If that isn’t so, I should like to know what could do better. As to the details of how such situations would be addressed, case by case, it will be a matter for future people in future social relations to determine.

Ok, I get your point, but I want to pursue this just a little further. Values are never a problem so long there’s a well established hierarchy between them. Mr Red and Ms White might both believe in self management, but above what other values and to what extent? What if Ms White and all the members of the White family, the White neighborhood and all over Whiteville decide that equity is wrong as a norm for remuneration. They vote democratically and respecting self management voting procedures, but nonetheless the result of the election is a rejection of remuneration according to effort and sacrifice. Should Mr Red and the people of Redville interfere to restore equity in Whiteville? If not, is that to say that self management is the overarching value, the value above all other values? Am I taking this matter unnecessarily far? 

Whether you are needlessly going off a cantankerous limb, or you are warning of a problem that future folks will wind up having to deal with, we will only know for sure in a future society, I suppose. Which doesn’t worry me at all. I believe equity, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning which can itself vary in many ways from context to context – even where we are sticking to the economy for a minute – are all structural preconditions for and will also all be abetted by self management, and that in a functioning participatory society this would be self evident to all. But, if I am wrong, and if we attain such conditions of freedom and debate, etc., and people learn new things, or develop new possibilities, and then opt to make institutional changes – great. It would presumably mean further steps in desirable directions. 

Is your query too cantankerous or is it a proper insight? I guess I think maybe it is a bit of both. The broad idea that future people may opt to have further changes even in the defining features of society is totally apt. But in this case, considering a possible change to eliminate equity, I honestly believe the observation is too cantankerous. The thing to ask about your case is whether the decision you are supposing that Mr White will favor affects only those in Whiteville, or also affects the people in Redville, and elsewhere as well. 

I not only believe that people who live in a participatory society for an extended time will celebrate its basic features and will have no reason to reject any of those – precisely because I think these features are mutually supporting and are essential for human well being and development – but I also think that even at the outset of forming and stabilizing such a new society, if a population organizes and wins the influence to develop a participatory society in place of capitalism, racism, patriarchy, and authoritarianism, it will be because the greatest mass of folks favored the institutions sought. 

In that case, for your scenario, we have to suppose that after we have pareconish and parsocish institutions and a near universal popular understanding of their logic and implications, even if that condition is still fledgling, though also fully operative, then some community, which you call Whiteville, will decide that it wants remuneration for power, say, or for output – or, for that matter – that it wants market allocation. I doubt this could or would happen in the type case I describe, but there is more to say. 

Even if I am right about that, still the worry is not entirely hypothetical. Take Venezuela. They didn’t usher in a participatory society or economy, and, in fact, they still have mainly institutions from the past distorting popular awareness which is itself way short of what I posit above, and in Venezuela there are certainly such conflicts as you describe. 

Well, if contrary to my expectations you also wind up having such conflicts once a new society is in place and well established, I would say that that is a reason for the dissidents to battle for their ideas to become new norms, or for them to secede, because a minority community opting for these particular results just for itself, at least beyond a quite limited extent, is not possible in a parecon. It simply doesn’t work to have two allocative approaches, or even two norms of remuneration, in one economy. You can certainly have different workplaces adopting quite different internal procedures. That is fine and parecon not only allows that, it facilitates it. But you can’t sensibly and stably have one sector of the economy – or part of the country – that is using markets and another sector or part that is using participatory planning. Neither part would work if fed by and feeding into the other part. It is even hard to have such contrary structures in two neighboring societies. The wide disparities in approach, and for example, in the prices of goods and services, would typically cause big problems at the border. And because Whiteville’s rejecting equitable remuneration or  Whiteville installing markets would impact the rest of society too, it cannot make that decision itself, precisely due to the logic and requisites of self management for all, even if nobody in Whiteville challenged the choice. One way to see this, more realistically, is to ask what should happen if some subdivision of a country decides to secede, taking its resources with it. Suppose New York City, say, or the oil regions of Venezuela decide to leave the U.S. or Venezuela, taking all local assets with them. The local citizens can’t just up and do that, because it affects the rest of the citizens too.

However, there is still more to say. Suppose a single firm has a thousand workers. Suppose it produces effectively so that they are all entitled to average income per hour for their full hours. Now the thousand workers could conceivably decide, among themselves, in a self managing fashion, to reapportion their claims on income. The workforce could decide that those who are stronger, or white, or male, or whatever, should get more, and those who are weaker, or black, or female, or whatever, should get less. If we set aside that it is ridiculous to think this would occur unless the weaker or black or female or whatever workers, were being coerced, and we assume that no one inside the firm complains about the violation of society’s broader norms, I guess it could persist. But I think you can see this is rather like saying in a current corporation, what if everyone voted that half the group should be slaves to the other half – and the losing half didn’t complain. On the other hand, more in line with the Whiteville case, the thousand workers can’t decide that they should all get more because they are all stronger or all male or whatever – because the allocation system simply won’t apportion the additional amount, nor would the broader society recognize this as a worthy desire. 

I could go on to discuss an endless array of possible, or even just unlikely or impossible hypothetical cases of this sort – and actually Robin and I have done this kind of exploration, endlessly, in the past, to test every variation of failure we could conceive. It turns out, at least as far as we found, that the parecon institutions are remarkably robust and intertwined. Admittedly with less comprehensive thought about it, I also think that once we get to the point, via assessment, experiment, and refinements, that a participatory society is comparably well conceived as participatory economics, its institutions will be similarly consistent. It is hard to even dream up a scenario of violation of pareconish norms where people in a parecon would actually have good reason to behave in the manner the violation requires. However, as this question can spin into countless variations, there is also a prior point to make, or to repeat. 

Ultimately, queries of this sort are not actually, I think, concerns with parecon or parsoc. They are instead ways of saying that no system will be all things to all people and that if some people don’t like a system, then they either have to compromise about what they ideally want, they have to leave the system, or they have to organize to change the system. It really is that simple, I think, and any system is subject to a million forms of saying, well, if Mr White says no, then what?

All societies have norms, procedures, and institutions which offer options and people either want to be part of the society, and relate to the options, or not. A critique of a set of institutions in some society depends on showing either that what the institutions deliver is insufficient for human well being and development, or that what the institutions require is impossible or internally inconsistent, or that the institutions fail to offer welcoming avenues and means of dissent by which people who learn new things can try to foster changes even in defining relations, and fails to offer protections and support for such dissent.  

If someone makes a convincing case that parecon’s allocation system generates class division, for example, that would be a critique. If someone makes a convincing case that elevating self management to a high virtue would mean the collapse of competency, that too would be a critique. If someone convincingly claims that surely there will come a time when some people in a participatory society decide they want some unpopular innovations and it seems that the society isn’t designed to facilitate their even making their case, that too would be a critique. But saying that someone might not want some aspect is not really a critique of the system, unless one makes a case that people won’t want the aspect because it is oppressive, or that they have no recourse to make their argument. 

In fact, parecon’s diversity value is most relevantly about just these matters. In a participatory economy or participatory society the most important thing diversity means is that dissident views should be voiced, explored, and even experimented with with support from the whole society for the debate occurring, even when the views challenge aspects of the whole society. 

Finally, if we return to the case of Venezuela, we can see that in the period of development of a new system via any of the many paths and patterns that can exist for that development, the kinds of conflict you ask about, and many more kinds as well, will exist. And the problems sometimes will work out rationally and congenially, but other times will succumb only to overwhelming power, whether it is coercive power or, far better, based on massive popular involvement.


Participatory Planning

When I first read about it I found that, unlike other elements of parecon, participatory planning required some training in economics to actually be able to defend it fully. Do you agree with that?  

Yes and no. 

To defend participatory planning against the criticisms of someone who has economic training, unless one is very secure in using plain language with a person who is trying hard to use technical language and to gain credibility and otherwise intimidate you by doing so, yes. And certainly to fully convince someone with an economics background, yes. 

But to talk to most of humanity who have no formal economics background, or to someone who has some formal economics background but can also speak plainly, no. 

Further, I should say that in my experience most training in economics is so divorced from reality and often even so contrary to reality, and impoverished in perspective and focus, that it obstructs seriously understanding economic possibilities, and often even obstructs understanding current economic relations. Economics training typically has it wired into the meaning of diverse terms that certain relations are inviolable – which claims, however, are exactly what has to be investigated and challenged and, in my view, rejected. 

Given my own training, even decades after I had that training, I am still able to argue at least to some extent in the language of the economist – but I almost never do. I just don’t think it adds much to plain language, and more often than not, I think instead it seriously detracts from understanding due to obscuring what is important while also implicitly taking as facts things that are patently false.

Is there much room in parecon for “entrepreneurial freedom” sometimes called “freedom of enterprise”? This notion is very dear to many people who ultimately end up defending capitalism on these grounds. They want the society they live in to provide them with the possibility to start up a business and, in exchange, for this society to enjoy their innovations, inventiveness and their talent. This argument makes intuitive sense to a lot of people. So how does freedom of enterprise really fare in parecon as compared to other economic models like capitalism or central planning?

First, is there room for enterprise initiative? The direct answer is yes, of course there is. In a parecon, a person can be creative, can start up projects, and can share their innovations, inventiveness, and talent with others. In fact it is much easier to do in a parecon, and also less subject to countervailing pressures, than is true now. 

Now, one must oneself have huge financial resources or at least have access to such resources via convincing a bank or rich patron to invest, who will later typically be a main or even the main beneficiary. The basis for convincing the investor isn’t your insight and isn’t the public benefit of implementing your plan, it is the investor’s private profit which turns out to very often limit the application of your creativity since it means you can’t get support for being creative in a way that runs contrary to your investor’s profits and power. And this is not a small matter. 

If a prison has a program where inmates can do what they want as long as it abides the borders of their cells and it uses only materials the warden provides – we don’t typically say the prison fosters creative initiative. Similarly, it is confused to say capitalism fosters creative initiative. It does so only with some very grave restrictions taken for granted.

In a parecon, rather than having to appeal to rich investors, what you need to do to undertake a new project is to convince others who will work with you and then to also convince the relevant industry council – which is people, again, just like yourself – as well as convince the public, in the sense of arousing their desire for the result. 

More, the rationale that can make that case in a parecon can only be the benefit your undertaking will bring for those who will use and create your proposed product. What a person in a participatory economy cannot do, however, is parlay creativity and inventiveness into excessive personal riches, though they can certainly use their creativity for unlimited general gain for society. 

The point is, there is no escaping that any society will inevitably have guidelines and norms that propel some possibilities but restrict others. Parsoc’s features are humane and liberating for everyone’s advantage. Capitalism’s features – and patriarchy’s and racism’s and authoritarianism’s – are elitist and restrictive to the advantage of some at the expense of others.

So, if a person says I like entrepreneurial freedom meaning I like the right of the rich to pursue more riches – but I do not like the freedom that exists in a parecon meaning the right of anyone to pursue benefits for all – then that critic’s motives, or more likely, their ignorance of the latter system and their cynicism or delusion about the former system, are on display.

Why does parecon have participatory planning? Why not markets or central planning?

There are many problems with the market and central planning approaches to allocation. Making a long discussion very short, if you use markets or central planning, or if you use a combination of the two, they impose on your economy – whatever other institutions you may have opted to include – class rule by a coordinator class above a working class, among other ills. 

Suppose you have self managing councils, for example – or even just democratic councils, in hopes of workers deciding their own conditions and actions, in accord, as well, with consumer desires. So far, so good, but suppose you also decide to retain the old division of labor. In time, a coordinator class is elevated above a working class in each workplace by the former class’s monopoly on empowering work due to the old division of labor that you have retained. This outcome so restricts possibilities that self management and even just democracy are steadily subverted until, instead, there is rule by the empowered coordinator class. What happened is that one institutional choice, the corporate division of labor, subverted another institutional choice, self managing councils – even though, at the outset, no one had that aim. And that is actually not just an issue for the future, but for workers coops in the present.

I offer the above case that is not about allocation, because the problem with allocation is similar. Even having self managing councils and let’s now add also having balanced job complexes, and with everyone eager to attain both self management and classlessness, still, markets and/or central planning will subvert those choices by the dynamics they impose. This would be a bit too long to describe in detail, here, but the essence is that the roles and practices of these modes of allocation cause people in the case of markets to compete for personal gain at the expense of others, and in the case of central planning to be authoritative or subordinate, using one’s relative position, again, for self against others. The competition within markets leads to elevating coordinators as a condition of competing effectively for profit or surplus and making the needed associated decisions. And the authoritarianism within central planning does the same thing in the name of obedience of the center by the units and, within the units, obedience to the local agents of the center by everyone else. 

This is all relatively easy to predict, once one is open to considering the possibility in light of what we know about the behavior patterns required by markets and central planning, but we can also see it in practice by examining the history of what has been called market socialism and centrally planned socialism. There are other deadly problems with these allocations options, too, such as ecological nightmares, prices that diverge from real values and bias outcomes against goods with social benefits and toward goods with social costs, remuneration for power or for output, and so on. 

As a result of all these ills of markets and central planning, parecon’s advocates believe we need a new approach to allocation, just like we need a new approach to ownership, decision making, the definition of jobs, and remuneration. We need an approach that has no center and no top that can and even has to dominate. We need an approach that doesn’t allow and even require actors to advance themselves at the expense of one another. We need an approach that assesses the worth of outputs and of people’s efforts accurately. We need an approach that accounts for ecological implications accurately. And we need an approach that delivers information and apportions influence consistent with people participating and appropriately influencing outcomes. 

It was precisely these desires that led Robin and I toward what we call participatory planning – a process of workers and consumers councils cooperatively negotiating inputs and outputs in light of full social and ecological implications. We didn’t opt for participatory planning to be ornery, or to diverge from the familiar, or to celebrate something we gave a nice name, or for any other oddball reason like that. We did it because the logic of our understanding of the requisites of allocation and of the ills of markets and central planning, plus our desires for self management and classlessness, left us no other choice.

Can we clarify how prices are established in parecon? Is there any room for, short of markets, perhaps something like the laws of supply and demand? Of course, I already understood how far we were here from private or state ownership of the means of production, from markets and from speculation and asset bubbles of any kind that go with it. But still, once the impact on the environment, the cost of materials and the labor that went into building, say, are accounted for, is there room for the laws of supply and demand? Can you explain how participatory planning would set prices?

It is important that you say once these various costs are accounted for, and presumably once people are accorded appropriate influence too – but the point is, it is to achieve those ends we need participatory planning, since markets and central planning horribly violate those ends.

Supply and demand is only vaguely understood, I think, by most folks who use the labels. People think that supply matching demand is a feature of markets. Just like they think having a place to go where you get what you desire is markets. So if you don’t want markets you must be opposed to supply matching demand and opposed to people being able to shop to meet their needs. That is a very useful manipulation of language for those who want to preserve markets, but it has nothing to do with real options and possibilities. It is a bit like saying dictatorship can further technical advance, security, and safety – so, if you don’t want dictatorship, you must not want technical advance, security, and safety.

If we consider one item, say shoes, what does supply matching demand mean? Well, supply inevitably equals amount consumed, other than waste. (Waste, however, can be enormous as it is, say, in the U.S. for many goods where often way too much is produced and much is shredded, basically. Indeed, I think the amount of food that is made available, but never eaten, is a strikingly high percentage of the total, not to mention built in obsolescence.) But, in the spirit of your question, let’s ignore all that, though for a particular mode of allocation it is in fact proper to ask, will it diminish waste to a minimum or multiply waste needlessly? At any rate, simplistically ignoring larger issues of waste, supply meeting demand means not only that what is produced is consumed, but that folks do not want more at the going price than is available for them to have. 

So does parecon have supply matching demand? Of course it does, and far more accurately and consistently than a market system does – even ignoring that markets misprice everything so that we don’t really know how much people would have wanted with accurate pricing, and markets create perverse reasons to generate waste, as well. In a parecon, you hear what are predicted prices and in light of those, and your preferences, you have desires that you register in the planning process. Next, you get indications of likely new costs due to an accounting of your and everyone else’s stated preferences. You then scale back your requests or enlarge them, as a result of the new information, and  there is another round of refinement, and eventually this negotiation, not individual but social and not for one product but for all products at once and involving both the producer and consumer sides, concludes. What is planned to be supplied is what people are seeking at the final prices, though with some overage to address changes in tastes, etc. Then, as time passes during the planned year, more changes occur, in light of changing tastes, conditions, etc.

What mainly differentiates this from markets in addition to the self managing role of councils, the equitable distribution of income, and so on, is that it is cooperative negotiation that arrives at final choices rather than competitive bidding backed by power. 

So for all goods and services, in a parecon, based on last years experience, changing tastes, and estimates of likely ecological, social, and personal costs and benefits, people and workplaces propose their consumption and production. This typically doesn’t entail itemizing everything down to specific products, but only by categories. There is no aim to fleece one another. That is not even an option. Rather, there is an aim to apportion sensibly in accord with everyone’s collective gain. That is what people’s circumstances and possibilities motivate them to do. Changes in consumer and producer proposals in light of each other’s revealed preferences and taking account of costs and benefits conveys new information about all these factors and gives better evidence of likely final prices, costs, and benefits overall. Then, in light of that, a new round of proposals occurs. The updating of the plan may also involve reapportioning resources and labor in light of unexpected desires which, however, need to be addressed. Because actors are not competing, but, instead, everyone affected by transactions, including workers, whole industries, neighborhoods, and the whole society, is arriving at a plan collectively, and because everyone overwhelmingly benefits (or loses) together, it turns out that this procedure can far more accurately uncover the full social costs and benefits of production and consumption, thus arriving at true prices which actors can use to decide what they want to supply, or to consume. 

Without going into the details, for example how people’s balanced job complexes cause investments in workplace relations to benefit everyone, or how equitable remuneration prevents any one group gaining at the expense of some other, the essential point is that instead of some small group at the top – called planners – simply instructing everyone what to do, or instead of actors competing for private gain with wildly disparate power and with a mechanism that hides very important collective, social, and ecological implications and that biases against paying any attention to them, in any event – you have a cooperative procedure where everyone’s benefit comes via the benefit of others and not at the expense of others, and where the personal and group calculations occur in context of accurate rather than wildly inaccurate valuations. Couple all this with the parecon norm of remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valuable labor, and with balanced job complexes, and with council self management, and you get an economic scaffolding which, when filled out with details that are chosen by people in light of their particular specific contexts and added priorities, fulfills the parecon values.

Why should people believe this can work, just on the basis of your saying so?

They shouldn’t. But nor should anyone believe that it won’t work simply on the basis of noticing that it is very different than what now exists, or because someone else, who probably hasn’t even spent twenty minutes assessing it, says it won’t work. 

Instead, people should take some time to think through the issues, perhaps with friends or workmates, being sure to consider the kinds of tasks and behaviors and the levels of information flow that participatory planning would really require – instead of made up scare stories about such matters – and assessing if it is in fact possible. Then, about the implications, people should also ask, okay, even if it is possible, is it desirable? 

Would it not only get allocation accomplished, but also do so consistent with self management and equity, solidarity and diversity, ecological sanity and peace? 

If the answer is yes, then the person should believe in and support the approach to allocation – albeit, of course, remaining very open to the possibility of learning new lessons once implementing the ideas. If the answer is no, well then I think the person should consider proposing a still better alternative.


Back to Markets?

Okay, but what do you make of someone replying, look I like parecon’s values, but I doubt the viability of participatory planning. I am skeptical that it is possible to incorporate whole populations into a collective negotiation of inputs and outputs without it taking up tons of people’s time, without it requiring people to do things they would much rather not do. Therefore, while I can see a role for elements of participatory planning in a good society, it seems to me that we need to be more pluralistic regarding allocation, which is to say, we ought to allow for some more centralized planning – albeit under the democratic auspices and subject to oversight from the population – and we ought to allow for using some markets, for their ease of use and efficiency – albeit with various constraints on their operations.

I think this is a very live question in that it pinpoints the feelings of many folks. On the other hand, I think it is not a well thought out stance. 

Suppose I said, I don’t want dictatorship and I then offered a whole array of very good reasons – essentially, ultimately, that having dictatorship not only doesn’t get you ideal decisions due to decisions being biased to serve a narrow sector of the population, but also because dictatorship, by its intrinsic operations, curtails self management, annihilates participation, and breeds passivity, obedience, or angry resistance. For that matter, suppose I ruled out the current political system in the U.S. on rather similar grounds, plus its being bought off by centers of wealth. 

And next, suppose I proposed as an alternative to dictatorship and to U.S.-style democracy a system of neighborhood, regional, state and national assemblies through which legislation occurs and policies are overseen. Now, suppose someone hears or reads a little about this, and feels, “I am not sure this will work. There are tens of thousands of decisions each year. I just don’t believe that a system of people’s assemblies can replace all that.” 

It is certainly a reasonable concern, though I believe history will in time show the concerned person was wrong. But next, suppose the concerned person says, okay, “Since I have these doubts, let’s decide we will do a little of this new assembly stuff, but we will combine it with some dictatorship and some U.S. style democracy.” 

I hope you see that though the doubt is a reasonable thing to feel, the solution in light of the doubt would be very strange. What we would have is someone saying, “because of being worried that a proposed new approach might have some flaws let’s stick in considerable degree with an old, virally expansive and incredibly harmful approach.” The person might add, “at least we know the old approach gets decisions made,” albeit, we might append, in a manner that guarantees incredible oppression.

I think the analogy to someone having some doubts about participatory planning and saying “okay, since I have those doubts, I think we should retain some markets and central planning,” is quite strong. 

Such a person’s doubts, at least in my experience, are rarely based on a serious assessment that tries to understand participatory planning and that also seeks to extrapolate the description in positive ways. Rather, more often, the doubts arise after assessing a cursory presentation of participatory planning, and with little attempt to really understand it, and with no attempt to address doubts rather than to enshrine them as untreatable – or, even worse, such doubts arise based on mistaken information about parecon or from merely echoing what someone else has said. Then the concerned person decides, apparently, since I doubt a system that I agree would be wonderful if it could work – though I have little reason for the doubt – I think we should advocate allocation institutions that we all know without the slightest doubt warp human personality, impose class division, and wreck the ecology, all to an extent incredibly beyond even the most extreme critics’ worries about participatory planning. This is odd, don’t you think?

My point is, when someone offers a new system for accomplishing major functions and you have some doubts – which is of course initially very reasonable – the thing to do is to explore the logic of the proposal, and your concerns, more deeply. Then, if you still have doubts, the thing to do is to express them and see if others have convincing solutions. Then, if not, the thing to do is to try to conceive your own solutions. Then, if not, the thing to do is to start over with the model – in this case, a new system for allocation – trying to capture the merits and jettison whatever caused the doubts, and to that end adding whatever is needed to make your new proposal viable and worthy. The last thing you should want to even consider, however, I would think, would be to throw up your hands and say, well, okay, let’s fall back on markets since that is simply saying, I give up, I accept disaster. 

Markets destroy all prospects for generalized equity, justice, diversity, solidarity, and self management. They suicidally violate the ecology. They generate, as well, international strife and war. And this is not markets gone haywire, or markets hijacked by evil manipulators, this is markets operating in their normal manner. It is markets giving these results intrinsically by their implications for behavior, information, and motives. How can anyone, essentially on the basis of an intuition and with little testing, not only feel that perhaps participatory planning can’t work precisely as the doubtful person has quite briefly heard it described (which may or may not correspond to how participatory planning is actually conceived), but also decide to return to markets?

Imagine a slave abolitionist who says she thinks we can handle picking cotton by the following approaches, which she then broadly describes in their main defining features, as a proposal for what to replace slavery with. Someone comes along and says, I have my doubts that the features you propose will get as much cotton picked, or will amass the cotton for use as well slavery does – and therefore, I think, let’s stick with slavery, though perhaps with a few modifications. This would be outrageous due to ignoring all but one variable. But that is what I have to admit, I hear people saying, in such cases as you describe, but now about markets. And I have to say, I suspect that when history advances enough to tell the tale, markets will be seen to be an artifact of human interactions so horribly abominable in its overall effects as to sit right up there with slavery in the annals of causes of horrendous injustice and oppression. 



I know you have just a few values that you highlight as critical in attaining a desirable economy – diversity, solidarity, equity, and self management – but do the institutions really deliver those? Won’t people cheat, steal, and in time pervert the whole thing?

There are two broad answers. First, there will be some anti social, self seeking, psychopaths, sure. So I am confident future people will utilize a legal system to deal with that, and with rape, or less dramatically, with public drunken violence, and so on – albeit a legal system very different from what we now endure. For example, they will make sure that the new legal system has balanced job complexes and equitable remuneration, and also that it has new features specific to its special functions and conducive to justice and consistent with self management, diversity, etc. 

Beyond having means for addressing crime, however, every conceivable economy can be criticized for the fact that someone could choose to cheat. The real issue that that observation raises is, does the economy orient you to cheat, steal, and even be psychopathic? Or does the economy by its implications for your choices, tend to make you social and caring, and, as well, even to make it very hard to steal or cheat?

Some people come at this issue wrong, I think. They think what must be true for us to attain a good society is that people have natures which literally rule out anti social behavior. They then get stuck assuming something ridiculous, like that people are angels. The parecon approach, paying attention to reality, is different. It says, of course people can behave in anti social and even horrible ways. We know that. We can see that. At the same time, however, we can also see that humans can act in highly social and humane ways. Human nature obviously permits both. So the issue becomes should we have social institutions – economic and otherwise – that propel the anti social behaviors thereby accentuating negative potentials – or should we have institutions that propel social and humane behaviors, thereby accentuating positive potentials? Put this way the choice seems rather obvious, and there is no silly assumption being made about people being intrinsically and exclusively angelic. 

Okay, but how does Parecon do? Does it tend to make us social and does it make it hard to cheat?

Parecon scores well on both these axes, not surprisingly, as it was conceived to do just that. First, people are not valued for their consumption levels – since those levels are very similar for everyone. More, since the processes of participatory planning require us, even if we only care to advance ourselves, to account for each other’s desires and circumstances, they build solidarity rather than essentially forcing us to be callous and anti social, as, for example, markets do. In a parecon, it turns out that we get better off together, or not at all. A growing income reflects overall increased productivity that all benefit from, or extra effort I undertake, producing what is socially valuable for others. Improved conditions at my overall balanced work stem from an improved overall average condition throughout the economy, that everyone enjoys. People hear these kinds of claim, and for some reason, often, it doesn’t seem to have much impact on them. I find that odd, each time it happens. What the above says is that parecon is an economy that literary, by its intrinsic operations, fosters sociality and even mutual aid, rather than obliterating each. It is a kind of school for sociality, not anti sociality – as are market economies. This claim ought to be an eye opener. Folks shouldn’t take its truth for granted, of course, but should feel like – I want to understand if that claim is true for this new system, since it would be so incredibly positive, if it is.

But second, suppose you do cheat or steal. Why do you do it? Well, if you are just a kleptomaniac or you do it for psychic kicks, then a legal or in some cases perhaps a medical approach is the only recourse. But if you do it for the material payoff, then parecon presents a problem. How will you enjoy the material payoff? 

In a parecon ostentatious consumption is a dead give away. In a parecon, that is, if I see you enjoying great wealth, I know you are a thief because you can’t amass great wealth by normal and fair activity. You can certainly receive a bit more than others due to your working harder or longer, but you can’t get too much more than others, because no one can work too much harder or longer. So stealing to get a little – there is not much benefit in that. And stealing to get a lot, even if you do get away with it, you can only enjoy the fruits of your crime in isolation, invisibly.

It is always striking when people try to critique parecon, or any vision, by setting up standards that the system they live under far more massively violates, as in market economies literally schooling us to fleece one another and even making anti social behavior mandatory if we are to succeed or sometimes even just survive, and then also providing a context where ill got gains can be flaunted without danger since massive disparities in wealth are routine. If the visionary points out the hypocrisy of the critic misusing a standard for parecon – and then dumping the standard when considering their own situation, the critic often just adds to the hypocrisy, saying, so what, I am doing fine.


A Good Example or TATA

Returning to origins for a moment, did your experience in the anti-war movement prepare you in any way to develop any of the concepts of participatory economics?

Learning from the people I related to in the Boston area, and from the movement of the times in all its dimensions – peace, feminist, anti racist – I picked up a very strong anti authoritarian inclination. That and my growing discontent with marxism and the sectarianism that was very present then, led as noted earlier to a lot of reading of anarchists and then, for example, to my writing my first book which was called What Is To Be Undone. As the title indicated, I was already anti-Leninist and the book was basically trying to survey different schools of left thought to discern weaknesses we needed to transcend and strengths we needed to retain and elaborate further. It was very much a result of my own movement experiences, as well as related reading, and if you were to take a look at that book I think you would see that it foreshadows participatory economics and much else that followed. 

Could it be that all that the parecon proposal needs to get more attention is setting a good practical example? How close are we to see cooperatives pioneering the parecon model, even on a small scale?

The threat of a good example is very serious. It is arguably what the U.S. goes to war for, most often – that is to crush the possibility of a good example developing and spreading. But having a coop work with balanced job complexes and self managing councils on a small scale, or even on a pretty large scale, wouldn’t alone be that much of a threat. Part of the reason is that it is so hard for such an experiment to become widely visible. What ought to be celebrated and examined will, instead, be marginalized. And part of the reason is that those trumpeting such an experiment are vulnerable to the criticism that sure, fanatics can operate like that, but normal folks, in a whole economy, cannot. So just the image of a few very liberated workplaces, isn’t alone enough. There needs to be a lot of understanding, among lots of people, to go with it. This in no way means such projects are unimportant. They can help us explore options and, also, if we simultaneously develop the needed accompanying understanding and discussion, they can greatly increase the credibility of the vision. Also, however, it should be noted that isolated projects exist in a very hostile context, under tremendous pressure to relent and use old structures, so they will often fail. 

As to how much of this is being done, I honestly don’t know. On the one hand, there are an incredible number of localized efforts using some features that parecon celebrates, for instance coops that have elements of democracy and equity, but not balanced job complexes, say – but way fewer efforts using most or all such features. What is needed is clarity about the ultimate aims and connection between these type experiments plus social movements that both celebrate the experiments and also seek changes inside the larger institutions of society.

How and under what circumstances did you arrive at that parecon model? Were you still college students? How long did it take? How did you feel while you were developing it? 

The first very rough version of it, I suppose, was all the way back in conversations we had as undergrad students. And then a few years later it got more developed in books like What Is To Be Undone and more particularly one called Unorthodox Marxism and another called Socialism Today and Tomorrow, both done with Robin. But I think it is fair to say that the vision only became an explicit model with a name and a well developed conception and presentation of its defining features in the book Looking Forward which Robin and I did with South End Press, and the book Political Economy of Participatory Economics, which we did with Princeton University Press, both coming after grad school. 

I don’t think there is any way to put a timeline on the conceptualization of participatory economics, given the long germination and many contributing threads of thought and action. When Robin and I were getting really explicit about it, trying to discern and work through the features of a better approach to economics, trying to see their relations one to another, and so on, there was a kind of excitement that is a little hard to describe. On the one hand, there was the obvious hope that what we were doing would matter. The jury is still out on that, and most of the time we encountered disdain or incomprehension, and often even ridicule. All of which was unpleasant. What was more enjoyable, was the act of working through the implications of different aspects and particularly discovering things we didn’t consciously, explicitly, have in mind for the model – which, however – we discovered were in it, and which we liked. It was very reassuring to see virtues that we didn’t intentionally build in, which, were, however, there. 

You obviously do not agree with Margaret Thatcher’s TINA doctrine, “There Is No Alternative,” but what do you make of the popular Left response to TINA, which asserts that “There Are Thousands of Alternatives” (TATA) and “one no, many yeses”? Are there “thousands” or “many” different ways in which an economy can be organized? What do such views suggest to you about the current Left? What are the downsides to such widely held beliefs with regards to Left organizational efforts?  

There are of course an infinite number of ways to conduct economic life – but these are overwhelmingly modest variations on a few basic systems. For example take the basic capitalist economic system. Clearly it appears in different countries, as well as in different times in the same country, with a wide array of variation – for example, in Sweden and the U.S., or in Sweden thirty years ago and Sweden today. So if we count each such variation as demarcating a new system, then, yes, there are a huge number of such “systems” in place and an infinite number possible. But I don’t think that is a helpful way to look at the situation.

Among little animals there are butterflies and beetles and worms, and then there lots of different variations of butterfly and of beetle and of worm. Among economies, there are a few types and then also lots of different variations of each type. But I believe something causes us to say that each of the variations of a type is still the same defining economic type, whether we are talking about different butterflies or, say, different instances of capitalism. The thing that makes all the cases, which can certainly be different in important ways, still variations on just one underlying system – say capitalism – is the presence, in each variation, of certain defining institutions (which for capitalism are private ownership of productive assets, a corporate division of labor, and largely market allocation). So with this idea of what a basic economic type is, the question becomes are there many sets of defining economic institutions, and even thousands of such sets, that would make it reasonable to say there are many or even thousands of different types of economy? 

I think there are not, and I would be interested to hear someone describe even ten different sets – forget about thousands. So, if that challenge was posed to me, I would say there is capitalism (in endless variations), and there is what I call coordinatorism in two main variations (with markets or with central planning) plus endless more modestly different versions of each of those. Okay, now what else is there? Well, there is participatory economics – and it too is not a singular system that cannot vary but, instead, has just a few defining institutions, that we have discussed somewhat, and, beyond those and even in the details of those, has endless scope for variation. 

Maybe someone, but not me, wants to add that there is a kind of localist system, call it localism, where locales of small size are each self sufficient so that the economic type called localism functions without markets or planning, but instead just has some immediate local barter and exchange. Advocates might call this bioregionalism. 

Or perhaps someone else – and again not me – wants to claim there is some kind of economy in which there is no need for allocation institutions at all, or for pretty much any other defining structures, because people just take what they want and do what they please, constantly restructuring everything rather than having fixed arrangements at all. Some advocates of this might call it anarchism, though I would contest that.

So for anyone who likes to say there are thousands of alternatives, I would say, okay, describe one – just one – that you really like, and that is classless. Describe one, just one, that delivers self management, equity, diversity, solidarity, etc. and also accomplishes economic functions well. Describe one that does these things, and is also viable. That is what parecon, with just a few defining institutions, claims to be. If you think there is another different set of defining institutions that can do that, okay, great, what are they?

I believe that to get self management, equity, classlessness, etc. – certain steps are essentially unavoidable. You can’t use markets or central planning for allocation because they will preclude self management, classlessness, etc., so you need a different way of doing allocation that works, and that rather than interfering with self management consistently supports it. You can’t have a corporate division of labor, again, because doing so will preclude having classlessness, and you therefore need a different way to apportion tasks into jobs that people do that is consistent with and that even generates classlessness. 

The issue becomes what do you opt for, instead of the defining capitalist or coordinatorist institutions, for your preferred basic defining institutions? Saying there are thousands of choices provides no answer at all – and is also, I think, horribly wrong. 

Parecon proposes council collective self management, equitable remuneration, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning as defining institutions. If other people think there are one, two, or a thousand more classless alternatives, I would love to hear about their different defining institutions. I have to admit when I get irritated about this, I am tempted to say, put up or shut up, but I haven’t, and won’t, because many people saying – what were the initials, TATA – are quite sincere, have wonderful aspirations, and simply haven’t thought through the matter. There are others, however, I think, who say it less admirably, simply to avoid having to say anything substantive and to avoid having to address the merit of a serious proposal like parecon.

So, finally, why does a person who in almost all cases can’t describe even two or three alternatives, suggest so confidently and dismissively regarding people who do favor a particular system, and who do so after a lot of thought and practice, and while being very explicit about their claims, urge that there are thousands of options, so we shouldn’t be advocating just one? My guess is that it often has nothing to do with actually having thought carefully and come up with reasons to think there are thousands of different viable and worthy types of economy – unless in the same simple sense that there are thousands of possible capitalisms and also thousands of possible parecons, say – and that it instead has a great deal to do with not wanting to say, “I believe in this particular set of defining institutions, and I even think they are essential” – or to deal constructively with others who say that.

And why don’t people want to say something like that or even to deal constructively with others who say something like that? 

It probably goes back to things we discussed earlier – feeling that to do so would be an authoritarian imposition on future citizens, or feeling that we don’t know enough to have such opinions, or just themselves not knowing enough – yet – and so on. 

Honestly, I would have to say, however, that this doesn’t reflect carefully thinking through any aspect of the issue. (a) There are quite obviously not thousands of viable and worthy different defining core institutional choices for economies. And (b) to say you favor a particular set of defining institutions is not to force anything on anyone, nor to overstep what we can and should reasonably talk about – as long as what you favor is just core defining institutions that are considered essential if future people are to be in position to control their own lives, as compared to favoring some kind of detailed map that makes all kinds of decisions in advance that are for future people to make. 


Organizing in Our Times

It seems that we know what is wrong – as you often point out the Left is very good at analysis which highlights how bad things are. Also, due to political and economic corruption, bogus reasons for going to war, a massive and increasing inequality, etc., there is growing popular dissatisfaction among the general public with the current system. This seems like a perfect situation for the Left to build a popular movement for radical social change. Nevertheless, the Left seems incapable of tapping into this dissatisfaction in a sustainable way. How do you make sense of this?  

I can only hazard my own guess which is that telling folks, showing folks, and in any way communicating to folks how bad things are and why they are so bad, while it is of course important, and to a degree at times even essential, is certainly not alone sufficient for tapping dissatisfaction. 

If I were to make a strong case that aging is incredibly harmful to human options, convincingly doing so would not galvanize distaste for aging into a sustainable mass movement against aging. But why? I think it is because even though people would like aging to be eliminated, they know that applying themselves to organizing and demonstrating against aging – “what do we want, youth; when do we want it, always” – would be wasting their time. There is no alternative to aging, and, in any event, what modest ameliorative steps are possible depend on advances that have nothing much to do with Joe or Susan demonstrating in the streets and forming local anti-aging organizations. 

I think the situation regarding people’s attitudes to radical activism, albeit a bit more complicated, is nonetheless pretty similar. Most people now – unlike in the Sixties – are not going to rear up in sustained anger, much less devote time and energy to organizing and demonstrating about injustice and oppression, unless at some deep level they believe there is an attainable alternative and also that their choice to become involved would enhance the likelihood of reaching that alternative. Their choice to not become active, to not dissent, to not organize, even though it is socially suicidal to refrain, does make considerable sense when looked at from the individual’s perspective.

So the question arises, if combatting cynicism by having a shared vision and strategy is essential, why do so many leftists who take the time to talk and write in an effort to change society, focus nearly exclusively when doing that on what is wrong – and almost not at all on what we want to win and how we might go about doing it? 

Again, I can only guess. First, I think it is much easier to talk or write about what is wrong. The answers are available and are easy to access. You are writing about what is well known. Similarly, when you talk or write about what is wrong you are highly unlikely to be criticized by people you care about, and equally unlikely to be wrong – or to look dumb. Second, people who write and speak to try to create action are just like those who don’t do so, in one respect. They, at some deep level, often tend to doubt there is a vision to favor, tend to doubt there are strategic insights to favor, and so on. Thus they do what they know they can do – criticize – and they often leave it at that. Maybe there are other explanations, I don’t know. But, whatever the reasons may be, when we look at it in the large rather than one writer/activist at a time, to me it is like a competitive sports team that loses repeatedly for some easily discernible reason not addressing that reason and preferring, instead, to go over and over stuff that only modestly germane to their real plight. Perhaps it harks all the way back to what we discussed about confidence, or maybe the problem has other roots. But in any event, the problem is tenacious and deadly, that much I do know.


1 comment

  1. avatar
    Joel Isaacs January 25, 2014 4:41 pm 

    Thanks guys,
    This is a great interview series and I’m getting so much from it. It’s like a synopsis of Michael’s writings, and contains the essence of what I feel is essential to a good society. Having it all in one place allows me to take it in more deeply.
    And Michael, I am consistently impressed by how thoroughly you (and Robin) have thought through the details and implications of your proposals.

Leave a comment