Opening Comments for Debate with Socialist Perspective: Representing Parecon

When Marx wrote up a draft of the Principles of the International Workers Association in the 1860s, he adapted a slogan of Flora Tristan, from 1843: "The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves."

But what is necessary for the working class to be successful in emancipating itself? My take on Participatory Economics is that it is, in part, an attempt to carefully articulate the conditions — the economic structure — that would need to obtain so that the working class is no longer a subjugated and exploited class.

To be able to say how it could be possible for class oppression to no longer exist, we need an understanding of what class is.

I take it that class difference is generated by power relations in social production, that is, the production of goods and services for each other.

A problem with Marxism is that it traditionally has conceived of class in terms of the ownership relationship. Thus it sees capitalism as divided into only two main classes. The investor or capitalist class own the means of production; the working class is understood to be those who don’t own the means of production and who must therefore sell their ability to work to employers.

Ownership may be the most important basis for power over social production in advanced capitalism but it is not the only such basis. In addition to the working class and the capitalist or investor class, there is a third main class in capitalism.

This is the class composed of executives and middle-managers, finance officers, lawyers, doctors, engineers and so on. This is the group into whose hands are concentrated the levers of decision-making power, of conceptualization of how things are to be produced and what is to be produced, and of supervision and control over the workforce. This is the techno-managerial class, or to use the terminology of Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, the coordinator class.

The power of this class is based on things like credentials, education, expertise, connections, knowledge related to power and production. This class tends to have a meritocratic or professionalist outlook reflecting the basis of its power.

This class is separate from the working class in virtue of the power they have over it, yet they are separate from the capitalist class because, like the working class, the power and economic prospects of the coordinator class are not based on ownership but on their work abilities.

This class has conflicts with the investor or capitalist class above it, and struggles with the working class below it.

What this tells us for the project of working class self-emancipation is that we must have a program that can not only eliminate the subjugation of the working class to a capitalist class, we need to also have a program to eliminate its domination by a coordinator or techno-managerial class.

A lesson of the 20th century, in our view, is that the coordinator class has the capacity to become a ruling class. This is exactly what we think happened in the countries ruled by Marxist-Leninist parties — the USSR, China, Cuba and so on.

A number of the components of participatory economics are designed precisely to avoid the continued subjugation of the working class to a coordinator class in a post-capitalist society.

First, if other people control your work, control decisions that affect you, and you are denied say over decisions that affect you, this directly violates self-management. Self-management means having control over our lives, having a say over decisions that affect us.

We propose therefore that workers have self-management over production, through directly democratic worker councils.

But there are also decisions that affect people as consumers. So we propose that council self-management be implemented also for consumption, through neighborhood councils.

Secondly, anyone who supports the self-emancipation of the working class needs to tell us how they propose to dissolve the class differentiation between coordinators and workers. This leads to a second component of participatory economics, our proposal for balanced job complexes. This means that jobs must be redesigned so that every job has both tasks that are empowering and skilled, and also tasks that include the less desireable kinds of work that must be done. Everyone is to be skilled and empowered and the less empowering, more onerous, less fulfilling kinds of tasks are shared by everyone.

Third, any economic system must have institutions for allocation of scarce resources such as human work time, fuel, and equipment. Our view is that the class division is inherent in the market system. If private ownership of the means of production is replaced by public or state or collective ownership, if this is combined with either markets or central planning or a mix of both, it will inevitably lead to the elevation of the coordinator or techno-managerial elements to ruling class status.

The alternative that we propose is participatory planning, through direct input and proposals from rank and file workers and consumers, with a back and forth process of negotiation leading to a comprehensive agenda for production.

An economic system also presupposes some principle of remuneration. We propose remuneration for effort or sacrifice, for those who can work, and remuneration for need for those who can’t.

"From each according to ability, to each according to need" was the traditional communist allocational principle. And it does make sense for some things. If someone is injured in an accident, we wouldn’t want to deny them care irrespective of income. But I don’t think an entire economy can be run effectively on this principle. It would deny to the system of production information about consumer preferences that is needed for an economy to be effective, for example.

On the other hand, we believe that remunerating people for power or output is neither efficient nor equitable. If a seven-foot apple-picker can pick twice as many apples as a five-footer due to height, why should the seven-footer be paid twice as much due to his height? If we’re opposed to remuneration of people due to inheriting ownership of assets, how can we favor remuneration by genetic inheritance?

I want to particularly emphasize that participatory economics has implications for strategy.

The sort of society that comes into existence through a process of social change will inevitably be shaped by the characteristics of the main social forces or social movements that are agents of that change. If we want to develop an economic system based on self-management, and the dissolution of corporate-style hierarchies, we need to work to approximate to this in our movements, unions, and political organizations today. Rank and file self-management of movements and organizations, and wide sharing of skills and responsibilities, develops the skills, self-confidence, and habits of self-management and democratic decision-making that are needed if our aim is the emancipation of the working class from class oppression.

Finally, I believe that this has implications also for how we deal with the issue of political power, the issue of the state.

The traditional Marxist conception of transition to a post-capitalist future advocated a socialist political party taking state power. But this conception implies a techno-managerial relationship between a leadership group and the working class. That conception assumes that the political party, and its leadership cadre, are sort of the management of the process of change, which they effect by implementing a program through the state.

If we want to speak in terms of a taking of power, an alternative conception is to think in terms of the taking of power, or empowerment, of the working class itself, through its own mass movements, creating the council self-management that takes control of production and consumption in the Participatory Economics vision.


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