Participatory Economics

[This pamphlet has been edited and republished. The newer version can be found at http://www.zcomm.org/participatory-economics-by-yotam-marom-1]

Table of Contents


Introductions: Warming Up


  • If You Are Reading This
  • What’s Inside
  • Some Quick Disclaimers


1.    Foundations: Getting on the Same Page


  • Holistic Politics
  • What is an Economy?
  • The Importance of Economics
  • Institutions: Can’t Live Without ‘Em
  • People: We Make the Machines Run


2.    Analysis: What’s the Deal with Capitalism?


  • Crash Course in Relations of Production
  • Something Missing: The Coordinator Class
  • Class and Exploitation
  • Alienation and Disempowerment
  • The Failures of the Market
  • The Company Capitalism Keeps: A Reminder on Holism
  • Auntie TINA, Why Does Mean Uncle Capitalism Always Overstay His Welcome?


3.    Vision: Participatory Economics


  • Introduction to Participatory Economics
  • Values First, Institutions Next
  • Collective Ownership: That’s Right, Me and You
  • Councils! Councils for Everyone!
  • Participatory Planning: Talk it Out
  • Balanced Jobs: Pass the Mop
  • Remuneration for Effort/Sacrifice/Need
  • Common Sense


4.    Strategy: From Here to a Free Society


  • 7th Inning Stretch
  • Vision Before Strategy
  • Counter-Hegemony: New Narratives and Raised Consciousness
  • Alternative Institutions: Revolution in Itself
  • Counter Institutions: Coming Out Swinging
  • Movements in Struggle
  • On Revolution


Conclusion: About Today and Tomorrow


  • An Historical Moment?
  • Glimmers of Hope
  • You
  • OFS Statement: Our Mission
  • OFS Statement: What We Believe
  • And
  • In Case You Want More…




~ Warming Up ~


If You Are Reading This


If you’re reading this pamphlet, you could be pretty much anyone. Maybe you had this given to you by a concerned friend, which means your friends know what’s up. Maybe you picked it up from an OFS table, so you at least know we exist and are curious enough to open this front cover. Maybe you had it thrust onto you by a shameless leafleter, and we only have a few sentences to convince you to keep reading. Maybe you sought this out, because you already have a pretty strong feeling that the condition of the world today is not as it should be. Maybe you’re a cop. Whatever the case is, read on.


What’s Inside


In the few pages ahead, the short time that we have managed to capture your attention, we are going to go through a lot of serious stuff with pretty simple, straight-forward logic (and maybe some humor sprinkled in, topped with a modest dose of inspiration). Frankly, most of it will be common sense (that title was already taken unfortunately), and you will be annoyed that you didn’t have the idea to write it down before we did. We were pretty late coming to it too if it makes you feel any better.


To keep it simple, we are pretty convinced at this point that we need to move on from capitalism. We will explain that in the coming pages, but really, we aren’t nearly the first ones who thought that up. What might make this pamphlet a little more interesting than your standard rant about capitalism, though, is that this isn’t just a complaint or analysis (although it is also that), but also a vision, an outline of a viable alternative. And then, since we have an idea of what to get rid of, and what to have instead, we also try to give an idea of how to get from here to there.


Some Quick Disclaimers



First of all, I am warning you right now, we are in a strange middle ground here between the words “I” and “we.” I am an individual, and I have a lot of evidence of that (for example, there is space between me and other people, I have a drivers’ license, I get bills, etc.). I wrote this pamphlet. At the same time, though, I am also part of a group, the Organization for a Free Society. You will notice, sometimes I write “I” and sometimes I write “we.” Trust me, I/we am/are as confused as you are about this. This pamphlet is a mish-mash of my ideas, those of my partners, and those of countless other people (both living and long gone) who have influenced me/us. It is, also, a work in progress. We’ve thought a lot, borrowed from others, and learned through struggle, but there is much more to learn. Hopefully, after reading this, you will also be ready to teach us something new.


Next, this pamphlet cannot possibly cover in detail all the things it needs to cover, and you should just know that upfront. We understand the economy to be intimately bound to community (race, nation, religion, etc.), kinship (gender, sexuality, child-rearing), power (governance, decision-making), and ecology – so there’s no way a pamphlet on economics could ever really give a full picture. At the same time, it seems pretty obvious that a pamphlet won’t get through all the details even in just the economic realm. Nothing we can really do about that. If you want more, there is a recommended reading list at the end of this.


Now, this was a real dilemma for me, because it got me thinking that – unless I really went the whole way – some people might read this and end up moving on without being convinced. I got into a bunch of trouble particularly when I got to writing the section on participatory economics. All I could imagine in my head was someone refusing to join the revolution because I couldn’t properly explain the 7th iteration process (whatever that means), or because I didn’t explain how jobs would be rated in a participatory economy, or the nuanced difference between Danish capitalism and British capitalism. I thought about it, though, and decided to cut myself some slack. I decided that, regretfully, if this pamphlet were any longer, it would be a book, and since books for many of these topics already exist, let’s spare you the reading and me the writing. I decided, too, to make peace with the idea that this is only one trigger among many out there that we hope will move and trigger people to change things.


This pamphlet alone won’t convince you, and it shouldn’t be expected to. Hopefully it will get you thinking, or push you in a certain direction, or introduce you to new ideas. Maybe it will inspire you to read more, or challenge you to answer some questions and think about your life. Maybe it will connect to the things you already experience in your actual life, and things will start to click. Maybe it will lie folded there unused in your pocket or bag, nagging you to read it, until you remember it one day – perhaps when you next encounter something truly ugly and brutal about daily life in capitalism, when you are thirsty for an alternative, when you are ready to throw down and fight. Maybe you’ll pass it on to a friend, too. You never know.


 ~ Chapter 1: Foundations ~

Getting on the Same Page


Holistic Politics


Even though this pamphlet is specifically about community in its different forms, community is only one of what we consider to be essential spheres of social life. Those other spheres include: class/economy, gender/sexuality/child-rearing/kinship, and power/authority, all wrapped up in this earth and our environment and with an international dimension as well. We think all of these spheres are fundamental to human life, and all bound up with one another, such that you can’t really understand the world by analyzing only one, or by valuing one as more important than the others. We call this complementary holism, and you can find more on that in a book called Liberating Theory, as well as in articles on Z-Net by people like Michael Albert and Chris Spannos.


As far as we can tell, the world is organized so that a network of oppressions (capitalism, racism, patriarchy, authoritarianism, environmental degradation, imperialism, and others) produce and re-produce one another, making it impossible (and silly) to think about one without having – at least in the back of our minds – the understanding that the others are contributing to the issue simultaneously. We understand that capitalism works in coordination with racism, that patriarchy has an integral role in government, that the environment is influenced by authoritarianism in government, and so on. Although different oppressions might be more prominent than others in particular contexts, we are certain that we can’t fight only one of them at a time, thinking the rest will disappear on their own. They won’t.


Again, this pamphlet is specifically about one of those spheres, the economy, but you should know that we see that as something holistic. That’s where we’re coming from, so even as we focus in, that is what the background is made of.


What is an Economy?


To put it simply, an economy is a system for the production, allocation (who gets what, from where, and how), and consumption (as well as disposal) of goods and services. It’s a collection of institutions that govern what we make, how we make it, what we use, how it gets around, who gets how much of it, and where it goes when it’s broken, unwanted, or used. Simple enough.


Any economy has to provide answers for a few basic questions. How is labor divided? How are people remunerated (compensated, paid) for their labor? How is it decided who gets what goods and in what amounts? How are decisions made? Who makes them?

For example, capitalism is a system of private ownership, where the system for deciding what goes where and to whom is market-based. We have a corporate, hierarchical division of labor. We are remunerated on the basis of a combination of our property, how much power we have (or don’t have), and our output (that is, what we can produce). Decision-making is dominated by capitalists (people who own the property), but also by another class of people we will call coordinators (we will deal with this soon), hired by the former to carry out management and decision-making.


Sound relevant yet?


The Importance of Economics


Well, look, right off the bat, if we can agree that an economy provides the answers to all these questions – how we work, where we work, how long we work, what we get for our work, how we get (or don’t get) the things we need, and how decisions about all of that are made – economics seem to be pretty important. Different economies answer those questions differently, some worse, and some better. We spend a lot of our time producing and consuming, so that’s important. But ultimately, we’ve got to eat, be clothed, house ourselves, be treated medically, and a whole host of other things in order to survive. We die if we don’t have those things, and we can’t just wish them into existence. The way we get the things we need is absolutely critical to us, and it isn’t theoretical. Economics, then, are unavoidably central to our lives.


They are, of course, not the only questions central to our lives, but (as we noted before), it seems pretty clear to us that economics are deeply intertwined with a whole set of other issues. It is important to deal with economics, then, in order to deal with other elements of our lives. For example, our economy is organized hierarchically, where people are categorized in different classes that compete with one another, some ultimately repressing the others. Now, just with common sense, it’s pretty obvious that a system like that is not only compatible with other divisive, hierarchical systems (like racism, patriarchy, and authoritarianism), but that it also helps to produce those systems (and is, in turn, co-produced by them).


So, not only is it important for us to deal with economy because of the implications of an economy in itself, but also because of the implications it has on other parts of our identity and society. An economy is not only a system of production for goods, but also for people, for culture, for consciousness. We’ve got to take that very seriously.


Institutions: Can’t Live Without ‘Em


An important thing to keep in mind throughout the rest of this pamphlet is that the economy – as well as other areas of social life (community, kinship, etc.) – is created in the interplay between humans and institutions. It isn’t one or the other.


Institutions are real things, material structures and processes that dictate the way we have to live to some extent.  Some institutions are relations (like marriage, for example), and some have a physical element to them (like a bank), but ultimately, they are the same in the sense that they are the frameworks through which we carry out a lot of our lives. Institutions, for example, that dictate what I mentioned above about having to work in order to buy in order to survive and so on. I, as an individual, did not decide that, so on some level, I am being acted upon by the material foundations of our society, by the stuff – the factories and social norms and governments and so on.


That’s important for two reasons. The first is that it points out that, when we criticize capitalism, we aren’t really talking about individuals. Sure, some capitalists are mean, and they treat their workers poorly, and they run conservative think tanks, and they are willingly responsible for the death and suffering of a great many people. But a lot of capitalists are just people playing the game. Most people who start the board game with extra points use them to get more points, and that makes perfect sense. Within the logic of the system, capitalists would be silly not to play by the rules of the game. The rest of us, too, are playing the game when we go to work or put money in a bank or buy fast food or what have you. It would be silly to attack that, as most of us have very little choice and flexibility of how to play within the game that’s already on, with its rules already defined before we were born.


The second reason the whole thing about institutions is important is that it signifies very clearly that we can’t just talk about changing society through changing people. Changing people is important, but somewhere along the way those institutions need to be changed. An army of friendly, cookie-baking, poetry-loving capitalists are still capitalists, and they will be as long as capitalism exists.


People: We Make the Machines Run


That being said, we need to always remember the flip side. Yes, institutions matter, and play a huge role in shaping the way we think, act, play, work, etc. But they are ultimately filled, motored, and governed by people. If I didn’t go to work today, the work I do wouldn’t get done. If none of us went to work today, none of the work we do would get done. If all of us (or enough of us) got together to work in a totally different way, and fought for our ability to keep doing so, the institutions would change. We run them.


So yes, changing people matters. That’s why, for example, we do things like read and write pamphlets like these. People are free, some more and some less, but everyone to one extent or another. Now, of course, that’s not to say that we are all free to go run wild and do what we want. I covered that above; we are very much bound by truly real, material things (fear being one of these material things, police being another). But it does mean that we have inside us, the collective potential to get free. We will not, unfortunately, be freed by institutions on their own, nor by “history,” as if history is some being that propels the world forward on some inevitable journey. No, we will be free if we recognize and use our potential to manage an alternative way of life, and then carry it out and fight for it.


But that’s getting too far ahead of ourselves. The point is, institutions have a vital role in the way we live, and people make institutions, and institutions make people, and so on and so forth. We’ll get to the rest in the coming pages.


~ Chapter 2: Analysis ~

What’s the Deal with Capitalism?


Crash Course in Relations of Production


Alright. Let’s start with the basics. We’re going to borrow from Karl Marx here, if you don’t mind, because it’s a good place to start, not because it’s the best place to end up.


According to Marx, there are two basic ways of relating to production. The first is as a worker, C-M-C (commodity for money for commodity). The second is as a capitalist, M-C-M+ (Money for commodity for more money). I’ll explain.


Basically, the vast majority of people on earth (workers) wake up every day with a commodity – their ability to work and the time with which to do it. They trade that commodity for money (that’s what the salary for your job is), and then use that money to buy another commodity (like food, a home, clothes, a movie ticket, etc.): C-M-C. Most people have to live out this very process every single day or they will starve or be kicked out of their homes. Some starve and lose their homes even so. The average working class family is three paychecks away from not being able to pay rent.


Now the other class (capitalists) wakes up in the morning with money. Maybe the capitalists inherited it, or worked and were granted the opportunity to acquire enough excess to have more than needed to simply survive, or won the lottery and bought a factory. At any rate, they are a very slim minority. So these people start out with money (we call this form of money capital, which is really just money put in motion to make more money), and they trade it for a commodity (the other class’ ability to work), in order to trade that for more money (profit): M-C-M+. In other words, the capitalist is using money to get the worker to make him/her more money than was invested to begin with.


Now, of course, that’s very crude. There are a lot of other classes and sub-classes in there, and there are a lot of other things happening along that production chain. But it’s a good place to start, because it really makes it clear that something fishy is going on.


Something Missing: The C

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