Interview on Parecon

The dogma on which Margaret Thacher introduced neoliberalism – that is: “there is no alternative”- has been very popular among world leaders, even until these days. In Greece, for example, we are told now that “There is no alternative” to the harsh austerity policy imposed by the IMF, the ECB and the EU – that is, to say, savage wage cuts, social benefits’ cuts, precarious employment etc.- as conditions to the country’s “bail out”. Why do people believe that? Is there really no alternative?

People believe it based on repetition and based on their lifelong experience that the crap that bedevils us never seems to go away. In other words, the idea that there is no alternative seems to fit our experience and past history. It has been, therefore it will be. But imagine someone saying, in the past – there is no alternative to women's degradation, or to slavery, or feudalism, and so on. Before there was an alternative – it would seem plausible to many. It has been, therefore it will be. But the claim was clearly wrong. And not just wrong, ridiculous intellectually, and morally vile. It was a way to create resignation. You can tell Thatcher’s formulation had the same purpose. She didn’t say, oh hell – I hate to say it, I can’t bear to say it, but the crap we have endured so long is unavoidable, a state of nature, despite being so abysmal. No, she was gleeful, like a doctor saying, laughing, you are doomed to suffer forever. She wasn’t reporting a hated discovery. She was imposing a reality that serves her and her mates.

So of course there are alternatives, some modest and a bit unstable, others profound and comprehensive. One I advocate and work for, for the future, is called participatory economics existing within a participatory society – the features of which we can discuss if you like. But the idea that grotesque inequality of wealth and power is somehow like gravity or like aging – just the way nature and humanity is and must be – is utter nonsense. Thatcher says it is truth for no other reason than to rationalize injustice.

The above mentioned IMF-ECB-EU policy that is applied in Greece since last year, thus far has only brought recession, unemployment and despair. How do you think the country could stand up on its feet again and get out of this dark tunnel? How can people regain a perspective for the future?

There are two different broad issues here. The immediate tasks to escape the current condition – and I don't know the Greek situation well enough to offer much about that. Suffice to say one should not try to escape the horrors of systematic economic failure by intensifying the burdens and costs the many are enduring, to hugely benefit a few – either domestically or abroad.

But for the longer term, to have a perspective for the future, I think what is needed is to realize that the task isn't to get Greece or any other country back to where it was before the recent economic crises arrived. That agenda is not like saying the task with the sick person is to regain health – it is like saying, instead, that the task with the sick person is to return to the prior conditions that generated not only the extreme sickness, but also the prior abiding pain and illness.

Our task is not to return to a "working capitalism" meaning one that still takes the wealth of the many and delivers it to the few, subordinating the wills of the many to the wills of the few, leaving dignity in the garbage, albeit without some of the most crippling conditions now afflicting Greece. No, our task is to move toward defining and creating a new system, economic and also political, cultural, and social. To have a perspective for the future requires, I think, having a vision for a different type society in the future – and working to attain it. There can’t be much morale and energy for struggling to regain a position that will lead once again to right where we now stand. That feels futile and idiotic to most people, who instead, just try to make do personally.

Let me put it differently. Why is this time, in all the media and public discussion, a crisis time? The answer is because not only the poor and weak are hurting somewhat more than usual, but the rich are at risk as well. Thus this is a crisis. When the rich are doing fine and not at risk, no matter how badly the rest are suffering, including starvation, want of medical care, defective housing, etc., at home and abroad – it is not a crisis. In the media calculus all that matters is elites. Our task – to attain a new perspective – means escaping this vile "logic" based on the well being of rich and powerful and establishing our own universalist and humane stance in its place, based on new social aims and new societal vision.

Social movements worldwide as well as the Left have been often criticized that they have been very vocal in pointing out what is wrong with the system, but that they do not suggest a viable alternative or even invest time and effort in giving birth to one. In your opinion, is this a justified criticism?

Yes mainly – and no, a little bit. Many decades ago I used to answer that question saying that the slaves of the plantation south in the U.S. could perfectly reasonably demand and seek abolition without knowing what the full socio economic alternative to slavery would be. And so wage slaves could do that, as well, regarding capitalism. And I think that is morally and even logically right. But I think then and even more so now, both morally and definitely strategically, a left that can't answer the question – well, okay, what do you want, what would be better? – is bankrupt. The answer is needed in particular for guidance in what to do, and for morale and hope.

I answer challenge, when I have to be brief, and when asked only about the economy, more or less like this. I want a new economy in which workers and consumers self manage their economic lives. There are no classes above benefitting at the expense of other classes below. This means there is no small group, called the capitalist class – just a few percent of the population – who own all the workplaces and resources and equipment, as a result controlling and profiting form the labor of others. But it also means there is no larger group, I call them the coordinator class, who monopolizes all the empowering work, using their informed and empowered position to determine economic outcomes and amass undue wealth compared to the working class, below, relegated only disempowering work. It also means the distribution of product and the allocation of labor and assets must occur taking into account the full social costs and benefits of economic choices and conveying to all workers and consumers appropriate proportionate say over outcomes.

All this is accomplished, in the economy I favor, which is called participatory economics, via a few core institutional features. These are workers and consumers self managing councils, a new division of labor based on what are called balanced job complexes which give each worker a fair share of empowering as well as disempowering tasks, remuneration (or income) for how hard one works, how long one works, and the onerousness of the conditions under which one works, and allocation not by central planning or by markets, or even a combination of the two, but by what we call participatory planning in which workers and consumers cooperatively negotiate economic inputs and outputs efficiently, with self managing say, and in light of full social and ecological costs and benefits.

Given time, when challenged for vision, I would explain further, including addressing very legitimate concerns and questions – would there be motivation, would there be quality, and so on – and also describing, albeit in my case less confidently, political, cultural, and kin institutions that could, together with participatory economics, constitute a participatory society, or, if you prefer, something some people might call participatory socialism.

How would you comment on the fact that the Greek Left has not tried to apply a model of alternative management in the business it runs (publications, newspapers etc.)?

I think it is understandable that it hasn’t happened, and I don't think left efforts in other countries including my own have been particularly better – and perhaps worse – but, that said, I think it is a horrendous failing both here and in my country and elsewhere too. Why?

Imagine we were trying to form a movement against slavery and we organized our own workplaces and media and so on, and we modeled them on – or at least they had the same key defining features as – southern slave plantations. I assume you and pretty much everyone on the left would agree slaves would not trust such a movement, nor serious abolitionists, for that matter.

Analogously, we say we are anti capitalist – and for that matter, and rightly so, we are anti twentieth century socialism too – yet when we create institutions of our own, their key defining features are barely distinguishable from those present in major media and other major corporations and the government, too.

Suppose we in the U.S. formed movements with Jim Crow racism, or with vile patriarchal structures, and so on. The relevant constituencies would mistrust such movements which would never attain high consciousness around race or gender. This is why, I think, most working people today seriously mistrust the left. We present to them rhetoric about ending class divisions but we do this from movements and via our own institutions that still have classist relations in place.

The point is, we need to incorporate the seeds of the future in the present to avoid hypocrisy, to avoid succumbing to the co-optive rationales of today, to have positive aspirations and generate informed hope, and even to benefit from the greater wisdom and liberatory aspects of our future aims. But the impediment is that we can't do a good job of beginning to embody tomorrow's virtues and structures today if we haven't agreed on what those virtue and structures of the future are – not least because we have barely even tried to do that, on the one hand, and because we have not ourselves escaped class prejudices, often, on the other hand – which returns us to the need to have vision.

Could you briefly explain a bit more about what participatory economics is? Which are the main cushions upon which the theory is based?

Participatory economics is a vision for a new type economy to replace capitalism and also what has typically been called socialism but has been, instead, in my view, an economic system making what I called above the coordinator class a new ruling class. Thus participatory economics is a new system to change work and consumption and allocation so each actor lives a full and rich economic life, with fair allotment of activities, fair say over outcomes, and fair apportionment of benefits and burdens. It rest on the institutions I mentioned earlier, which, one might say, in turn rest on the aim of classlessness and the more comprehensive idea that people are capable of and deserve conditions that foster and preserve solidarity, diversity, equity, self management, ecological stewardship, and internationalism.

The heart and soul of participatory economics, around which in different countries and even regions and industries within countries there could and likely would arise innumerable variations, is workers and consumers manifesting their wills over economic life via workplace and neighborhood councils in turn federated into larger industry and regional, and national levels, all using modes of self managed decision making, having equitable distribution of income based on how long, how hard, and under how severe and otherwise painful conditions you work, having balanced job complexes conveying to all workers a balanced mix of empowering and disempowering tasks so that no minority dominates the rest, plus participatory planning.

There are many longer treatments of the features of participatory economics, and its implications, and explorations of concerns people typically have about it, online – and I think in a book that has been translated into Greek, as well, titled Parecon – which stands, of course, for Participatory Economics.

Could you provide us with a couple of examples (local communities, business etc) where participatory economics have been successfully introduced – anywhere in the world?

There are two different ways to think about this.

First, are there instance of people who call themselves advocates of participatory economics who are themselves now building alternative way of doing economics? The answer is yes – though there are not that many and it is mostly, but not exclusive, left media operations. I wish I knew all of them, but I don’t. Most just come into being and struggle in their surroundings, barely, I think wrongly, letting others know what they are up to. Why relatively few such efforts? For one thing, folks don't have wealth with which to establish projects. For another, everything around them says you will fail, it is a fool’s errand, so it takes some very special confidence and courage to do it. Nonetheless, there are various workplaces trying to explicitly implement balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration, etc.

Second, one can ask, are there efforts under way that are in tune with participatory economic logic and aspirations, even though they don't explicitly espouse the vision and thus deviate from its logic in some ways, too. Again the answer is yes, but now there are many more instances, ranging from countless coops to occupied factories, and even to explicit efforts to experiment with new allocation – perhaps the most advanced of this are being tried in parts of Venezuela seeking to unite communities organized into councils and communes with local workplaces also organized into councils without using either central planning or markets, but instead via direct negotiations of outcomes.

At your lecture at Athens School of Fine Arts, you had extensively described your experience about the “experiment” in Argentina after the country’s economic collapse, i.e. when workers had taken over some industrial plants and tried to run them collectively. You had then emphasized the disappointment of the workers when, after sometime, the administration, who they had elected, started securing privileges for themselves against the collective management spirit. So, did this happen because human nature is inherently selfish and greedy or is it a matter of education? And, consequently, which problems would you identify as the most important in the collective management / participatory economics model? (Does this also connect with some people’s view that socialism “didn’t work?”)

When people occupy factories they typically, almost universally, decide to implement democracy – which is what they believe to be fair apportionment of power – and equity – what they think are fair wages, which is typically to make them equal for everyone. While those gains are incredibly real, they are not perfectly conceived, but the real problem is two areas that are not seriously addressed and typically not altered at all. That is, the old division of labor is preserved, and the workplace continues to operate within a market system of exchange, competing with other firms.

The old owners are generally gone and so – for example in Argentina – are the old engineers and managers, and financial officers, and so on. But instead of trying to figure out how to get the necessary tasks done without privileging a few, the workers in the occupied workplaces typically just pick out some people from among themselves to do those old jobs – managing, arranging, designing – whatever – without changing the definition and apportionment of work in general. The result is that the old division between twenty percent doing empowered tasks and eighty percent basically following instructions passively, persists. So while at first the new bosses are people with ties to everyone and thus very supportive of everyone, since after all, just days before their new appointments they were workers like everyone else – and while they start their new responsibilities with no more income than others, and subject to big votes on big policies – nonetheless, because of the nature of their daily work (engineering, accounting, overseeing, etc.), over time they accumulate so much more knowledge of workplace life, confidence, and day to day power over events, that they begin to become a class above their workmates, feeling more worthy, feeling more deserving, ready to decide to advance their own interests – and thus the old rot returns. Not the old capitalist domination. The owners are gone. Rather, the kind of domination seen in twentieth century socialism – with about twenty percent dominating the rest.

The problem of markets is similar though a bit more complex. Even if the occupied workplace solves the problem of the old coordinator and owning class leaving not by slotting new people into their old roles, but by redefining the division of labor with what I would call creation of balanced job complexes – still, competing on the market will have very adverse effects. An experiment can exist even within the surrounding market context, but it will last without all the old rot coming back only if it is very aware of and very diligent about guarding against the pressure from markets to reinstitute old hierarchies.

This discussion, I should add, is at the heart of really understanding economics or actually any part of social life. It is about how particular institutions by their effects on people filling their roles, determine, even against everyone’s intentions, sometimes, outcomes. In this case, an old division of labor or an old allocation system, or both, can undo the accomplishments and trample the aspirations of workers and consumers trying to live in new ways. This too is why we need vision – it informs our understanding in ways that allow us to foresee these types of failing and avoid them.

You are also an activist, so I would also like to ask your opinion on the issue of violence. Greece has been a “boiling pot” for quite sometime. Part of the movement ended up using violence. Howard Zinn, when he visited Greece, said that “violence is for those who are too lazy to organize”. I would like your comment on this situation. What would you propose so that we exit this vicious cycle of violence that reveals a society in decay?

It is not an easy issue. Self defense is somethimes unavioldable and essential, as is breaking laws including laws aimed to protecting property – but I also realize that the use of violence against people, and even when it is quite random and incoherent, against property, is, in almost all situations in a country like Greece, or my own, the U.S., actually beneficial to elites trying to defend their advantages. The reasons for this are trivially simple.

First, violence corrupts our social relations by reducing the diversity of our activism by keeping many people out and by elevating a particular type of participant and rhetoric to predominant positions.

Second, violence is the turf of the state and the police. It is the one realm in which they are by far strongest. Anyone who denies this is simply delusional.

So by resorting to violence we in most cases alienate populations that should be on our side, we distort participation and mentalities inside our efforts, and we confront elites and the state on precisely the turf where they are by far most prepared to fight effectively. This is, pardon if I offend anyone, strategically idiotic.

What Howard Zinn was saying was that when one organizes effectively support grows to the point where numbers are far more powerful than rocks or even flames, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, when one doesn’t organize effectively, one lacks numbers and cohesion and vision – and so is left with only rocks and perhaps flames, and uses them, and gets smashed, or maybe runs away leaving others to get smashed. I think that is basically correct.

In countries like Greece, moving toward violence especially when done by small and typically largely isolated groups tends to crowd out reason, vision, and even serious strategy. It crowds out reaching out to ever wider constituencies which almost disappears as an aim. It crowds out developing allegiance to a new vision and thus planting the seeds of the future in the present which becomes seen as antithetical to exerting power – a view that completely misses the essence of organizing. It crowds out a positive and solidaritous mindset, save of a military sort. It crowds out transparency and participation, elevating secrecy and a kind of elitism of the young and mobile. It crowds out substance, as discussions revolve around police and movement "tactices," rather than real issues of the day, and real aims. Oddly enough, we become puppets – with the state and elites the puppet masters, pulling our strings by goading us into the one type of conflict with them that they can win.

Again, sometimes it is desirable to overrun private property, and or to defend oneself including even having to strike back at authorities to do so. The obvious example is a picket line keeping scabs out of a workplace. Or an occupation. But this is best only when it is large numbers who are involved, and when the great majority of all those seeing or otherwise experiencing the situation understand and support what is done, and when there is also tremendous effort to ensure that the most aggressive and even violent conflicts do not distort the message of the movement, do not call into question its motives or ethics, and, even more, do not distort the internal culture and priorities of the movements involved. There should be a high burden of proof, in other words, on the employment of tactics that are violent or are likely to lead to violence.

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