Intellectual, Structural, and Strategic Flaws?

Addressing previously assembled anarchist concerns about participatory economics turned out to require too much space for one essay so I broke it into four parts. This is part 4. Please skip around however you like. 




The institutions parecon deems necessary for a fulfilling, free, informed, self managing and classless association of workers and consumers, are:


  • workers and consumers self managing councils in place of private ownership and top down decision making
  • remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued work (plus need when medical or other reasons warrant) instead of remuneration for property, power, output, or only need
  • balanced job complexes equalizing the empowerment effects of jobs instead of corporate divisions of labor that include monopolization of empowering positions by a few
  • and participatory planning (or cooperative negotiation of inputs and outputs) instead or markets, central planning, or combinations of the two, for allocation




Intellectually Deficient, Structurally Ill Conceived?


Criticism: Parecon is too institutional. It doesn’t seek to implement or even recognize the anarchist ideal that everyone should be free from constraints. Parecon involves too many institutional limits. Parecon is disciplinarian.


Response: When people make agreements, they should abide those agreements. This is not only a matter of honesty and integrity, it is also a matter of organizational success. It is a prerequisite to doing anything collectively. 


Institutions codify agreements so we don’t have to re-decide all social relations with each new day. In that light, an institution is just a set of social relations which define roles people play to accomplish some shared functions. It could be a family, a church, or a legislature. It also could be a workplace or an allocation system. 


We agree that we will work together and that we will all abide certain shared norms and rules which in turn require certain acts from us and limit us in undertaking various other acts. We codify these arrangements in institutions because, despite the constraints this establishes, the continuity it confers brings huge benefits of recurring patterns  of responsibility and action we can all rely on. To violate agreements, once one enters them, is typically anti social unless the agreements have become seriously detrimental. 


So yes, parecon is focused on figuring out what key institutions we need if we are to accomplish necessary social functions in ways that elevate values we aspire to rather than trampling those values into oblivion, without the built-in constraints having contrary effects.


Why are some anarchists explicitly anti institutional? And why do a good many anarchists harbor at least a degree of worry about institutions, per se?


In current society, institutions accomplish various, often essential, functions. This is why we relate to them. For example, we become a wage slave or we starve. Contemporary institutions accomplish their functions, however, in ways consistent with maintaining society’s centrally defining hierarchies of wealth and power. As such, our surrounding institutions are typically alienated and oppressive even while some options they provide are necessary. People with high hopes for humanity therefore find nearly all existing institutions more or less odious.


The anti-institutional anarchist takes his or her correct observation that most institutions in today’s world are viciously oppressive, to the conclusion that one should oppose all institutions per se. This throws away something incredibly necessary in hopes of eliminating other horrible contemporary results. 


The real solution to having bad institutions is not to opt for no institutions, but to favor worthy and desirable institutions that will help us attain truly civilized relations. What parecon seeks for the economy is institutions that accomplish socially beneficial economic functions – production, allocation, and consumption – in ways that generate solidarity, diversity, equity, self management, and classlessness, rather generating relentless oppression and alienation.


Sadly, an anti-institutional anarchist, quite against his or her intentions, is, in a very real way Margaret Thatcher’s even more horrid alter ego. The anti-institutionalist agrees with Thatcher that there is no alternative to capitalistic institutions other than to have essentially no institutions at all. When Margaret herself looked at those two options – having capitalist institutions or having essentially no institutions – she judged that capitalism was better than any variant of prehistoric poverty and brutality. When Margaret’s alter ego looks at those two options, he judges that prehistory would be better than capitalism. When the pareconist looks at those options, she says, hold on, I am not choosing from those two options. That is not all there is. I seek something better. We must conceive it, build it, win it. 



Criticism: People having a say in decisions proportionate to the extent they are affected by those decisions violates personal prerogatives and prevents radical solidarity. Parecon ghettoizes us off from relations that are distant from us, destroying mutual connectivity.


Response: I admit to finding this concern difficult to understand. Anarchists who feel this way are thinking, I believe, something like the following. “Nowadays I often make decisions about what to do and what ought to be done that are not so much about their impact on me as they are about right and wrong. For example, I oppose the war in Iraq even though I am not under the bombs. It is a matter of principle. This norm takes away morality and concern for others and leaves me only to assess that which impacts me in a self interested manner. It also seems to curtail what I can influence. It seems to reduce my attention to justice and the well being of others.”


I admit to not getting how one can arrive at this stance regarding pareconish self management, even though I think the stance itself harbors fine values and a very insightful way of thinking about solidarity. 


First, in the example that is given, what applying the norm changes is to deliver a say proportionate to effect on them to the people of Iraq – and thus it immediately ends the war. Of course, if those folks are either ignored or cannot register their desires, the norm is not being applied and one has to function outside its logic, albeit trying to move toward it.


For that matter, second, even if one made the decision only inside the U.S. – literally ignoring those outside who are also affected – still this norm would deliver a say to those who suffer due to the misallocation of resources, to those who are likely to die or lose loved ones, and to those who have their psyches blasted by being part of a war machine, rather than the decision being nearly entirely in the hands of rich and powerful elites. Again, thus ends the war.


Moreover, third, this norm doesn’t cut folks off into isolated pockets, which would indeed be bad, but instead actually sensitizes us all to interconnections. While the norm says people’s impact on decisions should be proportional to the effect on them, it in no ways says one shouldn’t offer insights or values to others, hoping to affect their view of a situation. Finally, like all other norms, the self management advisory doesn’t act alone, nor is it to be considered something like a engineering instruction. Instead it is a social norm, as is remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness, for example. Thus, in a participatory economy (or polity) we approximate the sought outcome as best we can within the limits of not wasting time and energy for a fictitious and needlessly excessive accounting accuracy. Also, there are sometimes competing norms, or parallel norms, that simultaneously operate.


As a guideline for establishing decision making rules in diverse contexts, as well as for designing structures to facilitate needed deliberation, challenge, tallying of preferences, etc., self management seems as good as one can find. Pure democracy, which is one person one vote majority rule, simply does not and should not always apply. One issue is the tyranny of the majority imposing its will on a minority. One way around that is protections and overarching laws. Another way, however, is a decision making process that gives highly affected minorities more say, which is, indeed, what the protections would be trying to accomplish. The same holds for the other extreme. There are many decisions that are nobody’s business but your own. They are not properly handled – whether as a matter of morality or as a matter of efficiency – by everyone voting and a majority ruling. 


If an anarchist wants to say that in practice self management will look more fuzzy and complex and be less perfect than a simple minded engineering rendition of it in which we all get perfectly modulated levels of influence for every choice – the pareconist will of course immediately agree. But to dump the norm entirely or claim that it is somehow contrary to anarchist aims for decision making seems to pursue anarchist ideals in an anti-anarchist manner. 


Is there anything more at the core of anarchism than the idea that people should control their own lives and circumstances up to the point that our actions or choices in doing so disrupt others from having the same level of control over their lives and circumstances? That is what parecon’s self management seeks to achieve. If, in some context, “something else” better achieves that goal and for some unforeseen reason the self management approach violates it, fine, in that context the “something else” would take precedence.



Strategic Flaws?



Criticism: Parecon fetishizes the idea of a third class. It worries way too much about a socialism that isn’t really socialism. Its commitment to balanced job complexes generates sectarian negativity about potential allies. Parecon gets class wrong.


Response: Interestingly, the idea of a third class between labor and capital actually has a long anarchist lineage leading back to Bakunin and even a bit further to others less famous. Of course, this doesn’t make the ideas right, but it is interesting to have in mind.


Yes, it is true that pareconists worry about something called socialism which isn’t socialism. But then don’t anarchists, also? We don’t want to give our lives to efforts to improve society only to wind up with results we would rather never have ushered in. What parecon says in these regards is that between labor and capital – and still perched above labor when the owners are eliminated, but real classlessness is not achieved – there exists a third class, the coordinator class. 


The pareconist claim is that while capitalists have a monopoly on productive property, the coordinator class monopolizes empowering work. They do it and others don’t. The coordinator class do tasks that educate and elevate them so that they are well prepared to develop and argue for agendas within workplaces and in the broader economy. 


Those who do rote and repetitive tasks each day instead have information, confidence, and social skills all blasted out of them by the disempowering work they do. As a result they become steadily less able to participate effectively in decision making, and even less inclined to do so. Those who do empowering tasks learn in the process about the overall work situation, engage with others, and have time and energy to apply.Those who do rote tasks are diseducated, made less socially skilled, and exhausted, due to their efforts. 


The coordinator class of roughly 20 percent dominate the working class of roughly 80 percent. In capitalism owners are above the coordinators. In what has been called market and centrally planned socialism, owners are gone and coordinators are on top.


The pareconist says, first, that the institutions of a classless economy need to replace whatever causes class divisions, including classist property but also workplace and allocation relations. And second, that whatever in the effort to win a new society causes the old coordinator class to retain its identity against and above workers has to be eliminated as well.


To remove the capitalist class from dominating and even existing, parecon thus eliminates private ownership of productive assets. This doesn’t mean there are no workplaces and resources, it means they are not owned by a few. All anarchists agree so far.


But parecon then goes further, realizing that to eliminate the basis for an owning class is not the same as to eliminate all basis for all classes. It has two more key steps to take. First, it must change the division of labor so that empowered tasks are not monopolized by a few. And second, it must change allocation so that it does not recreate that same division. For these purposes, as noted earlier, parecon advocates balanced job complexes and participatory planning. 


Parecon doesn’t get class wrong. Rather it is very familiar and prevalent Marxist renditions that emphasize only property – and that thus arrive at only two centrally important classes – that get class wrong. Yes, capital and labor are important. But no, they are not alone important. The coordinator class matters as well – not just because its particular structurally imposed motivations complicate capitalist existence (which they do), but even more so because this class can have its own agenda, contrary to capital but also contrary to labor, leading to what we call coordinatorism.


Does seeking balanced job complexes mean that some members of the coordinator class will be more or less horrified by a pareconist project, deem it utopian nonsense, and try to seriously oppose it? Yes. The position and circumstance of members of the coordinator class will indeed lead many coordinator class members toward such a perspective. However, is it also possible for people doing empowered work to feel that a change to balanced job complexes and classlessness is desirable, or necessary, or just, or even best for them, or all four? Yes, of course it is possible. And in fact it often happens. 


But we should also note that even when this does happen, there is still a disposition and a style associated with coordinator training, assumptions, and habits that can misorient movement efforts and drag them, even against everyone’s will, toward old patterns. 


So if all the above sentiments ring true, what needs to be done is to seek balanced job complexes to overcome coordinator rule and attain conditions of classlessness. And to seek those new relations in ways welcoming coordinator class members to participate, but protecting against their dominating the process and results. This means adopting methods and structures of movement organization that not only do not replicate old coordinator worker arrangements, but that overcome the classist assumptions and attitudes characterizing and continually abetting and reproducing coordinator domination of working people. The analogy to dealing with racism and sexism without becoming sectarianly opposed to whites and men is rather strong. These are strategic issues, but centrally important ones. 


An analogy can help. Workers daily succumb to owners and coordinators, including carrying out policies and acts that are heinous in their results. When an anti-capitalist opposes wage slavery, it doesn’t mean he or she must have sectarian hostility toward working people who are not yet rejecting their plight. Indeed, to the extent anti-capitalist activism drifts into such a stance, it becomes self defeating. So the anarchist, socialist, or pareconist opposes private property, yes, but not the people compelled by its existence to act harmfully. Some of their actions will have to be opposed at times, but not the people themselves. 


Well, a little less comprehensively, the same type analysis holds for the coordinator worker relation. The pareconist does reject and seek to replace corporate divisions of labor. But the pareconist does not argue that having had the benefits of occupying coordinator class slots makes one the devil. Rather, it most likely gives one some socially harmful classist habits, mannerisms, and beliefs that need to change, but also some socially valuable skills, talents, and knowledge that can be very helpful to activism. 



Criticism: Parecon is economistic in putting too much emphasis on the economy and too little on everything else. Parecon will sublimate or violate needs and potentials born outside the economy.


Response: If the only thing one was seeking was a participatory economy, this criticism would be absolutely correct. In fact, even if one was seeking mainly a participatory economy while desiring gains in other parts of life as well, but assuming that those other gains would follow pretty much automatically from economic gains, the criticism would still be quite correct. However, the reality is that Parecon was conceived via an approach that takes for granted that not only economics, but also kinship, culture, and polity – as well as ecology and international relations – are all paramount. A serious societal vision will address all these dimensions of social life, each on a par with the rest. Indeed, I don’t know a parecon advocate who isn’t also a participatory society advocate, seeing parecon as just one part of a larger undertaking. So how does this particular anarchist concern that parecon’s advocates are economistic arise, if it is so off base?


The answer is that there are books, talks, and presentations that are overwhelmingly about parecon, with little reference to other spheres of social life. This is true in part because it is impossible to simultaneously fully address all sides of life in one work – though some works do so in a summary way. Also, more work has been done on economic vision than on other aspects due mainly to who got started first and their training and knowledge base. It says nothing about importance. If the authors of kin vision, political vision, or cultural vision had come first, and if those domains lent themselves as easily to a fuller presentation, then one or more of those would have the bulk of the coverage so far, and not economy.


Arguably the participatory society effort has so far given too little attention to the non economic aspects of society. This is not built into its concepts or values, however. Rather, so far folks best able to extend the insights to other domains have been too busy with other pursuits, or not yet convinced of the efficacy and need for making this effort. Folks with a prior economics focus have had the time to pursue that domain more fully, and belief in the need.



Criticism: Parecon is gradualist. It does not advocate an essential break in the here and now. Parecon is not revolutionary but will lead to a never-ending limited pursuit ultimately going nowhere significant. Parecon is reformist. 


Response: A reform is a change in society that doesn’t fundamentally alter its defining relations. Favoring participatory economics and participatory society typically includes favoring various reforms. That much is true. More, parecon advocacy does not typically say, “revolution now” – meaning we can and will transform society’s defining relations now, or in the immediate short term future. That’s also true. 


But saying pareconists – and parsocists too – favor reforms and do not see revolution occuring soon – at least in the U.S. – is not the same as saying they only favor reforms and are therefore reformist. Nor that they think revolution is precluded forever, and are therefore reformist. It is simply an illogical leap to come to such conclusions. 


In contrast, to not advocate reforms at all does mean that a person ignores or opposes efforts to win anything short of a new society. Can’t try to win higher wages, better conditions, preventing or ending a war, and so on. A stance that rejects reforms and only advocates a whole new society is callous to the immediate needs of most people on the planet. Surely that is not anarchism.


What then might the above complaint or worry that some anarchists have of parecon being reformist mean? It could mean the critic thinks advocating parecon has a built in implication that one seeks reforms but nothing more. But in fact pareconists too call this mode of pursuing change reformism, and moreover strenuously reject it, and work hard, instead, to be non reformist. 


Being non reformist, in the parecon view, means not rejecting reforms entirely, but fighting for them in ways that develop and enhance consciousness, organization, and desires to not just win the reform and cease activity, but to win it and continue until there is a new society. 


In short, parecon seeks a revolution – what else is parecon other than a vision for a new economy – yet also struggles to better the lot of suffering constituencies now, albeit in ways that lead forward rather than “nowhere significant.”


It is possible, however, that a real difference lurking in this stated concern is more subtle and addressed by the point below. 



Criticism: Parecon does not put forth a clear and unequivocal strategic plan, why should anyone think it has hope of fruition?


Response: Here, I think perhaps there is a real difference with many anarchists, and even perhaps with some whole schools of anarchists. Despite most anarchists having very queasy feelings about sharing a vision of a better future – oddly, at least in the eyes of pareconists – the same anarchists often feel much less queasy, or even see it as essential, to share a strategy for reaching a better future. 


The logic is pretty similar. If shared vision helps with strategy and analysis and provides hope and direction – then surely shared strategy also aids strategy and analysis and provides hope and direction? The pareconist answer is yes and no. 


The problem is this. 


Just as one can go too far in developing and advocating vision, so too for a strategy. However, with strategy there is less that is universally valid. Almost all strategy, that is, is contextual. 


So the first problem for shared strategy is to find those commitments that are universal for all parsocist/pareconists, and those commitments which are essential in a particular country, and those which are essential at a particular time, and so on. 


But, strategy by its very nature is not only contextual, but also fluid due to changing circumstances and insights which reveal flaws or alternative better options. 


Almost all strategy is thus much more like the layer of vision that one learns by local experimentation, changing from country to country, or even workplace or neighborhood to workplace or neighborhood – than it is like the defining relations of a vision that apply to a whole society or even to many or all societies. And thus almost all strategy is also much more subject to the advisory that we should eagerly try competing options, preserve minority options, and be open to change – than it is subject to the idea of accuracy or perfection.


Is there anything in strategy that is as universal or very nearly as universal as having equitable remuneration, balanced job complexes, self managing councils, and participatory planning claim to be for economic vision? 


Well, Paresocists and pareconists are still thinking about this, for the most part, having only recently gotten to the point of organization and program being explicitly relevant to their broader collective work as pareconists and parsocists. But, yes, things like the injunctions to plant the seeds of the future in the present – albeit implemented differently in different times and places – is arguably strategically universal. So too – despite come anarchist’s doubts – is the idea of fighting for reforms in a non reformist way. So too is the identification of obstacles to change, and agents of change – the latter being those oppressed by society’s defining institutions – and the advisory that leadership by oppressed constituencies especially regarding the oppressions they face is essential to effective program and activism. So too is extreme caution regarding electoral involvements and violence, due to their built-in cooptive and perverting effects. So, too, in the case of parecon, are the advisories concerning organization, demands, and actions needing to appeal to workers and prefigure classless outcomes, rather than being structured to appeal to  coordinator class members and seek coordinator rule.


There are no doubt additional general strategic advisories and focuses applicable to parsoc and parecon – not least, constructing workers and consumers councils, balanced job complexes, self managed modes of decision making, equitable approaches to material benefits, and various equally important tasks arising from kinship, cultural, and political vision. 


However, the question arises, can one who has a vision – whether parecon and parsoc, or some other – put forward a clear and unequivocal strategic plan”? 


This is where what may be a significant difference with at least some anarchists arises. I think a plan for one place is not necessarily valid in another place. A plan for one time is not necessarily valid for another time. Indeed, I think it is regarding strategy that sectarianism typically surfaces, not regarding visionary aims.


One can imagine more or less electoral participation being desirable. One can imagine more or less focus on different aspects of society, more or less use of different types of struggle, more or less grassroots construction of new institutions, being desirable. Opting exclusively for one pole or the other as if these are matters of principle typically leads to unwarranted division and hostility. While differences over strategy can of course arise from differences over aims and values, principles – they need not. Instead, a single movement with shared values and vision should be able to and should even strive to simultaneously embody many diverse strategic ideas and approaches.


And so arises a concern. Whereas sharing a minimalist maximalist institutional vision – determining and then advocating what we need to put in place to have future people in control of future outcomes – does seem essential to moving forward and winning a new society, so that a single vision does need to be shared even while we work hard to avoid the possible negative side effects of overextension, sectarianism, etc. – having a single shared strategy, even minimalist maximalist, may be going too far. This suggests that one should be cautious about exaggerating one’s strategic attachments. Strategic views typically ought not divide folks who agree on goals. Every effort should be made to develop effective strategy, yes, but not in ways that claim everyone must do things only one way. Rather, most often, multiple approaches are desirable. 


While it is possible to go too far and thus drift into destructive errors of overextension and harmful attitudes of sectarian exclusion about vision – it is even more possible, and even highly likely to do so regarding strategy – so even more effort should be made regarding strategy to experiment, embody diversity, have mutual understanding, and even to welcome differences within one large movement. About this, sometimes it seems, some anarchists disagree. Even without having a clear and shared institutional vision, they decide various strategic attachments are inviolable. For pareconist/parsocists the tendency is the reverse. Share a minimalist/maximalist vision about which to be flexible, but principled. However, in proposing strategy, be very very flexible and open, welcoming far reaching diversity, and taking differences as matters for exploration and experiment, not expulsion. 

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