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Participatory Economics, Ecology, and Anarchism


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Introduction 

What do we even mean by participatory economics, ecology, and anarchism?

Participatory economics is a vision for how we humans can better conduct our economic lives including production, consumption, and allocation. Often called parecon, participatory economics is built on a few core values—solidarity, diversity, equity, self management, classlessness, sustainability—but then proceeds to describe core institutions of which it has only four. Parecon offers no blueprint. It offers only that which is essential for fulfilling the sought values. 

Ecology is a term whose definition can morph a bit depending on who is employing it. For this essay it suffices to say ecology is the way organisms, including humans, impact and are in turn impacted by their environments including its “built features” such as carbon in the sky, plastic in the oceans, sounds reverberating in our ears, pollution clogging our lungs, and the pavement beneath our feet. 

Anarchism is another word that takes on different overtones depending on who is using it. For this essay anarchism is taken to be a political philosophy and movement that puts a high burden of proof on any exercise of authority and especially on the imposition of coercive hierarchy. Anarchism seeks abolition of a state functioning above the citizenry, and in most forms rejects, as well, all other structures deemed authoritarian or hierarchical.

So given how much each involves how can one article possibly address participatory economic vision, ecology, and also anarchism? 

Perhaps we can outline the economic vision, describe the need for new ecological relations, clarify Anarchist aspirations, and then suggest ways in which participatory economic vision interfaces with ecological needs and anarchist agenda. 

Participatory Economics (Parecon)

Participatory economy, also called parecon and sometimes participatory socialism, is defined by five core features. 

First, In a parecon, I own my shirt, my bicycle, etc., but I don’t own the place where I work nor does anyone else. The right to influence decisions about the place where I work derives from being affected by those decisions, not from ownership. Ownership is mute.

Put differently, the natural and built means by which people create new products are all part of a social commons. This commons not utilized for private good under the auspices of a small group of owners. It is instead utilized for general good, under the auspices of all affected.

Second, beyond eliminating ownership of productive assets, workers and consumers are organized into worker and consumer councils and federations of councils as the venues from which they contribute their efforts and seek to fill their preferences for economic life. More, these councils apportion decision making influence over economic choices in proportion as those choices impact the people who decide. 

To the extent possible, if you will be more affected, you will get more say. If you will be less affected, you will get less say. And this holds across the whole economy, and it holds for production, consumption, and allocation.

Third, the division of labor inside and among workplaces is changed from a corporate division of labor to what are called balanced job complexes. Instead of 20% of the working populace monopolizing all the empowering tasks in professions and in management and other empowered jobs and 80% doing only rote and obedient tasks in subservient and disempowering jobs, in a participatory economy all who work will have a mix of tasks that on average leaves each worker equally empowered by their overall work situation and therefore—and this is the point of the approach—fully ready to participate in economic life and decision making.

There is still surgery, lawyering, engineering, and other skilled and knowledge-based and otherwise empowering work in the new economy, of course. People would still learn to do these complex labors. But surgeons would clean or answer phones, or whatever, as well as do operations. 

There would be drudge work, dangerous work, boring work, in the new economy just as there would be empowering and enervating work. The change will be that people do the disempowering labors and the empowering labors in a mix with an overall empowerment balance. That is, each job in this new approach is balanced to have a mix of tasks and responsibilities that in sum convey average empowerment implications. 

Fourth, a participatory economy’s norm of remuneration, or payment, or income, is for effort and sacrifice at socially valued work. 

In a parecon there is no income for owning property, for bargaining power, or for output. You don’t get income for owning, for being more powerful, or even for being more productive per se. Instead, if a person works longer she gets more. If a person works harder she gets more. If a person happened to do, for some reason, more onerous or otherwise harsh labor, she would get more to offset that sacrifice. With the caveat that in each case the person must be doing socially valued work.

Fifth, in every economy, allocation determines what is produced, in what quantities, distributed to whom, and with what valuations. In a participatory economy this is accomplished by what is called participatory planning. 

Participatory planning, the fifth defining feature of participatory economics, is the one part that is complex enough to escape being easily briefly presented. It is a system of decentralized cooperative negotiation by workers and consumers and their councils that arrives at relative valuations (or prices) of resources, intermediate goods, and finally goods, as well as for the ecological side effects of each, that reflect the true individual, social, and ecological costs and benefits which in turn inform decisions about actual inputs and outputs. 

The workers councils, in light of their prior year’s activities and its final prices propose and report the outputs they would like to produce and the inputs they will need for the purpose. The consumers councils sum and report the proposed consumption of their members plus the whole council’s collective consumption, each in accord with anticipated income and prices.

The information from the workers and consumers councils is processed in mutually agreed and transparent ways and fed back to the councils along with updated predictions of where prices will finally arrive when planning is complete. 

The councils next consider the new information and adjust and report new proposals. Individuals and councils alter proposals to seek to arrive at socially acceptable outcomes they desire while abiding the constraint that as consumers they abide their income/budgets and as producers they provide desired outputs without wasting assets.

The back and forth process continues until a plan is reached. More, the rounds of exchange and refinement occur in context of additional features which employ the same basic ideas in different contexts to reveal ecological implications and to address investment options.

The claim for what we have here only succinctly sketched and barely specified—participatory planning—is that influence from each actor is broadly in proportion as he or she is affected by the choices to be decided. Valuations are accurate for individual, social, and ecological implications. The plan arrives without undue delay at responsible and implementable agendas. Methods for updating in light of changes in tastes, needs, and availabilities as the year unfolds are easily undertaken consistent with guiding values. Behaviors that are called forth are not only doable and mutually agreed by all involved but also accord with and enhance solidarity among the participants as the benefit of each depends overwhelmingly on the benefit of all. And finally, outcomes and behaviors support of the logic and practice not only of workers and consumers councils but also of balanced job complexes and equitable remuneration, and thus of classlessness.

That is a very big set of claims, clearly, but the point is that the key institutions of parecon are just five and are each and all designed so there is no capitalist class and no coordinator class, but, instead, workers and consumers work and consume as able and all enjoy the same opportunities and same broad conditions, even as they each do their own special labors without class division or class rule.

The new institutions produce solidarity among actors. Each actor, to get ahead, has to behave in ways consistent with the well being of others, rather than seeking to trample others well being. Instead of nice guys finishing last, even nasty guys have to pursue the social good as a means to attain private advance.

The new institutions also produce equity. Each actor receives a share of the social output in accord with the effort and sacrifice he or she expends to help produce that output. There are no huge nor even dramatic differentials in income and wealth because there is no wealth or income for property, power, or output. You earn more only if you work socially usefully longer, or harder, or at more onerous tasks. And in the large, the average quality of each person’s job improves overwhelmingly only as the average balanced job complex improves for everyone.

The new institutions also produce diversity. They honor and seek varied solutions and options by abiding the wills of the whole populace rather than only elite sectors.

The new institutions arguably most originally also produce self management. They accord to each actor, whether in workplaces, in consumer units, or via the allocation system, appropriate influence over each decision, from the smallest personal choices to the largest collective projects—and everything in between.

The new institutions, in short, generate classlessness, sustainability, and efficient use of both human and material assets to meet needs and develop potentials. Each actor is free to pursue and fulfill their economic needs consistently with every other actor being able to do likewise.

Ecology

When considering ecology, economies add new contents to the environment such as pollutants; deplete natural contents from the environment such as resources; and alter the arrangement and composition of attributes in the environment—or the way in which people relate to the environment—such as by building dams or creating changed patterns of human habitation. Each of these and other possible ways an economy can affect the environment can, in turn, have ripple effects on nature’s composition and, via those changes, back again on people’s lives.

For example, an economy can add economic byproducts to the environment by exhaust spewing from cars or smokestacks accumulating chemicals in the atmosphere. In turn these effluents can impede breathing or alter the way the sun’s rays affect atmospheric temperatures. Both of these economic implications can have ripple effects on people’s health or on air currents which then impact sea currents, in turn affecting polar ice caps, and then altering weather patterns, sea levels, and crop yields.

Or an economy can use up oil, water, or forests, leading to people having to reduce their use of the depleted resources, affecting the total level of both production and consumption around the world, the availability of nutrients essential to life, and of building materials needed for creating dwellings.

Or an economy can alter the shape and content of the natural environment’s dynamics, for example by reducing forests we reduce the supply of oxygen they emit into the atmosphere, or by increasing the number of cows and affecting their eating patterns (to produce more tasty steak for ourselves) we increase the methane they expel, again leading to greenhouse effects that in turn alter global weather patterns. Or economies can alter human living patterns and transportation patterns and attitudes, in turn affecting people’s on-going relations to mountains, rivers, air, and other species.

In the above cases and countless others, what we do in our economic lives affects either directly—or by a many-step process—how we environmentally prosper or suffer in our daily lives as well as how the environment itself evolves.

In other words, economic acts have direct, secondary, and tertiary affects on the environment and the changed environment, in turn, has direct, secondary, and tertiary affects on our life conditions.

Sometimes these effects are horrifying, as in seas rising to swallow coastal areas and low lying countries. Or in crop, resource, or water depletion that causes starvation or other extreme widespread deprivations. Or maybe the effects are slightly less severe but still horrific as in tornados, hurricanes, droughts and floods devastating large populations, or inflated cancer rates caused by polluted ground water or escalated radiation cutting down large numbers of people early in life, or dams eliminating whole towns or villages due to their footprint. Or maybe the effects are limited to smaller areas suffering loss when natural environments are paved over or when noise pollution arises from loud production or consumption.

It follows from all these possibilities that the relation of an economy to the surrounding natural environment is deadly serious and that to fail to regard this, even if succeeding on all other criteria, would be a damning weakness for any proposed economic model for new society.

Capitalism and Ecology

Before considering the relation of participatory economics to ecology, it might prove useful to consider how capitalism and also what has been called market socialism fail regarding the environment. 

First, markets prioritize maximizing short-run profit (or surplus) regardless of long-run implications. 

Second, markets ignore most environmental effects as externalities and have built in incentives to violate the environment whenever doing so will yield profits or surpluses or, for that matter, yield consumer fulfillment at the cost of others. 

And, third, there is a market drive to accumulate regardless of effects on life and all other variables.

In other words, markets create incentives to violate the environment and anything else external to the buyer and seller deciding a transaction whenever doing so will enhance the producer’s profit.

Sellers will, for example, use production methods that spew pollution but that cost less for them than using clean technologies; that damage groundwater or use up resources but that cost less for them than methods that don’t; or they will build into products secondary effects which consumers who buy the product won’t directly suffer but others will, and which cost less to produce or induce more purchases. 

And it isn’t only that in each transaction the participants have an incentive to find the cheapest, most profitable course of production and the most personally fulfilling course of consumption. It is that markets compel the absolute maximum of exchanges to be enacted. 

That is, there is a drive to buy and sell even beyond the direct benefits of doing so because each producer is weighing not the benefits of a little more income versus a little more leisure due to working less but, instead, the benefits of staying in business versus going out of business. That is, each actor competes for market share to gain surpluses with which to invest to reduce future costs, pay for future advertising, etc. These surpluses must be maximized in the present lest one is out-competed in the future.

The race for market share becomes a drive to continually amass profit without respite, which means to do so even beyond what the greed of owners might otherwise entail. The guiding philosophy is grow or die, regardless of contrary personal inclinations. This not only violates attentiveness to sustainability of resources but also produces a steadily escalating flow of garbage and pollution. Transactions multiply and in each transaction the incentive to pollute and to otherwise violate the environment persists. 

We get an economy spewing into, using up, and damaging the environment on a massive scale. We get an economy turning communities into dump sites, making cities sick with smog, polluting ground waters that in turn escalate cancer rates, and causing global warming that threatens not only raging storms but even vast upheavals of ocean levels and agriculture.

Parecon and Ecology

Will a participatory economy be any better for the environment than capitalism? Yes, for a number of reasons.

First, in a parecon there is no pressure to accumulate. Each producer is not compelled to expand surplus in order to compete with other producers for market share. Instead, the level of output reflects a true mediation between desires for more consumption and desires for a lower overall amount of work.

In other words, in a parecon, we each face a choice between increasing the overall duration and intensity of our labor to increase our consumption budget, or, instead, working less to increase our overall time available to enjoy labor’s products and the rest of life’s options. And since society as a whole faces this exact same choice, we can reasonably predict that instead of a virtually limitless drive to increase work hours and intensity, a parecon will have no drive to accumulate beyond levels that meet real needs and develop real potentials. This will, therefore, stabilize at much lower output and work levels—say thirty hours of work to produce socially useful products a week—and eventually, even less.

The second issue is one of valuation. Participatory planning doesn’t have each transaction determined only by the people who directly produce and the people who directly consume the items transacted much less does it give participants structural incentives to maximize purely personal benefits regardless of broader social impact. 

Instead, every act of production and consumption in a parecon is part of a total integrated economic plan. The interrelations of each actor with all other actors and of each action with all other actions are properly accounted by participatory planning’s decision making. The basis of this is that consumers have budgets, workplaces have to produce what is socially valued to be allotted income, and the prices of resources, intermediate goods, and final goods, all account for the associated personal, social, and ecological costs and benefits.

Production or consumption of gas, cigarettes, and other items with either positive or negative effects on people beyond the buyer and seller take into account those effects. The same holds for decisions about building a dam, installing wind turbines, or cutting back on using certain resources. And likewise for spewing pollution. Projects are amended in light of feedback from affected councils at all levels of society, and also from groups of people who are affected by and convey the cost of ecological implications.

By eliminating the market drive to accumulate and to have only a short time horizon and the market-compelled ignorance of economic effects that extend beyond buyers and sellers (such as effects on surrounding actors and on the environment) and the consequent market mispricing of items, parecon properly accounts costs and benefits and provides means to sensibly self manage environmental impacts.

It isn’t that there is no pollution in a parecon. And it isn’t that non-renewable items are never used. You can’t produce without some waste and you can’t prosper without using some resources. Rather, when production or consumption generates negative effects on the environment, or depletes resources that we value and cannot replace, we should not transact unless the benefits outweigh the detriments. And we should not transact unless the distribution of benefits and detriments is just meaning those afflicted by environmental effects are reimbursed in accord, assuming they accept that option.

This is what parecon via participatory planning ecologically accomplishes and really all that we can ask an economy to do by its own internal logic. We don’t want the economy to decide by the pressure of its institutional dynamics results that humans therefore have no say in. We want a good economy to let people who are affected make their own judgments with the best possible knowledge of true and full costs and benefits by bringing to bear appropriate self managing influence. 

If the economy presents this spectrum of possibility and influence to its actors, as parecon does, what is left to assess is what people will then likely decide. Parecon provides for people to be free and self managing, and simultaneously ensures that the logic of the economy is consistent with the richest possible human comprehension of ecological connections and options.

Similarly, we can ask of the rest of society—its culture, its kinship relations, and its polity—that these, too, by their roles, not bias people against the environment or future generations. This requires a polity manifests people’s wills and has no institutional bias regarding ecology. It requires that kinship occurs in context of the environment and is attuned to husbanding it. And the same for culture. This last can have many forms but in any event it means there will not be disdainful—much less polluting—attitudes and inclinations within cultural norms.

Anarchism 

Most broadly an anarchist seeks out and identifies structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination throughout life and tries to challenge them as conditions and the pursuit of justice permit. 

As Bakunin put it, “Authority tends to make its possessor unjust and arbitrary; it also makes those subject to it acquiesce in wrong, subservient, and servile. Authority corrupts its holder and debases its victim.”

Anarchists work to eliminate domination and subordination. Ideally, they focus on political power, economic power, power relations among men and women, power between parents and children, power among cultural communities, power over future generations via effects on the environment, and much else as well.

Of course anarchists challenge the state and the corporate rulers of the domestic and international economy, but they also challenge every other instance and manifestation of illegitimate authority. 

As Kropotkin puts it, capturing the anti-authoritarian sentiment but also perhaps foreshadowing complications to come: “We already foresee a state of society where the liberty of the individual will be limited by no laws, no bonds by nothing else but his own social habits, and the necessity which everyone feels, of finding cooperation, support, and sympathy among his neighbors.”

So why wouldn’t everyone concerned that people ought to have appropriate control over their lives admire anarchism?

Problems arise because from being “opponents of illegitimate authority” one can grow movements of incomparable majesty, on the one hand, and movements that are majestically unimpressive, on the other hand.

If anarchism means mostly the former, good people will admire and gravitate toward anarchism. But if anarchism means mostly the latter, then good people will have reservations or even be hostile to it.

So what’s the not so admirable or even distasteful version of anarchism that turns off many potential advocates? And what is the admirable version now increasing its support around the world? And do the admirable strands incorporate sufficient insight to be successful?

Distasteful Anarchism

Distasteful “anarchism” is the brand that dismisses political forms per se, or institutions per se, or even plain old technology per se, or that dismisses fighting for reforms per se—as if all political structures, institutional arrangements, or even technological innovation intrinsically impose illegitimate authority, or as if relating to existing social structures to win immediate limited gains is an automatic sign of system support or hypocrisy.

Anarchists insightfully see the contemporary state’s use of force to subjugate but in response some anarchists then wrongly deduce that this is an outgrowth of trying to adjudicate, or legislate, or implement shared aims, or even just to cooperate on a large scale per se, rather than seeing that it is instead an outgrowth of doing these things in particular ways that serve narrow elites so that what we need to instead fulfill the functions more positively. We don’t need no polity. We need a good polity. An anarchist polity. Which is by no means a contradiction in terms.

Similarly, anarchists correctly see that many and even most of our institutions, while delivering to people needed organization, celebration, food, transport, homes, services, etc., also restrict what people can do in ways that subvert human aspirations and dignity. However some anarchists then wrongly deduce that all institutions per se must be oppressive so that instead of lasting institutions we should have only voluntary spontaneous interactions in which at all times all aspects are fluidly generated and dissolved.

The contrary truth is of course that without stable and lasting institutions that have well conceived and lasting norms and roles, advanced relations among disparate populations and even among individuals are quite impossible.

The mistake is that while institutional roles that compel people to deny their humanity or the humanity of others are, of course, abominable, institutional roles that permit people to express their humanity more fully and freely are not abominable at all, but are part and parcel of a just and life-enhancing social order. In short, we don’t need no institutions, we need good liberating institutions which is by no means a contradiction in terms.

The situation with technology is similar. Anarchists look at assembly lines, weapons, and energy use and rightly see how they despoil our world. But some anarchists then say there is something about pursuing technological mastery that intrinsically breeds these horrible outcomes so that we’d be better off without technology. Of course, this misses the point that pencils are technology, clothes are technology, and indeed all human artifacts are technology, and that life would be short and brutish, at best, without technology. So, the issue isn’t to decry and escape technology per se, but to create and retain only technologies that serve humane aims and potentials. We don’t need no technology, we need humane technology which is by no means a contradiction in terms.

And finally, regarding reforms, anarchism rightly notices that with many reforms the gains we win are fleeting and elites even manage to use the granting of these gains to reinforce their legitimacy and extend their domain of control by first granting but then domesticating and later often even eliminating the advances. But again, the missing additional observation is that these problems don’t result from change or reform per se, but from change that is conceived, sought, and implemented in ways that presuppose rather than challenges system maintenance. What’s needed instead isn’t to have no reforms, which would simply capitulate the playing field to elites, but to fight for reforms that we conceive, seek, and implement in ways designed to lead activists to then seek still more gains in a trajectory of change leading ultimately to new institutions.

It shouldn’t be necessary to even discuss the above addressed “bad trajectory” of anarchism and its anti political, anti-institutional, anti-technological, and anti-reform confusions. It is perfectly natural and understandable for folks when first becoming sensitized to the ills of political structure, contemporary institutions, or current technologies, or when first encountering the problems of reform struggles to momentarily go awry and blame the entire category of each of these for the ills that the worst instances of each embody. But if this confusion were to thereafter be addressed naturally, it would be a very temporary one as it would quickly become clear that without political structures per se, without institutions per se, and/or without technology per se, not to mention without progressive reforms per se, humanity would barely survive much less prosper and fulfill its many capacities.

But, of course this prediction of easy transcendence of these types of views neglects that media and elites will take any negative trajectory of anarchism and will prop it up, portraying it as the whole of anarchism, elevating its confused and unworthy ideas to crowd out anarchism’s more valuable ideas and to discredit the whole undertaking. In this context, some of the most extreme (but colorful) advocates of counter productive viewpoints will be highlighted by media. Their unsustainable and objectionable approaches will as a result gain far more visibility than would be warranted by their numbers much less by their logic or values, and, thereafter, also a certain tenacity.

Desirable Anarchism

What about the good trajectory of contemporary anarchism that is less visible in the media? This seems to me to be far more uplifting and inspiring. It is the widely awakening impetus to fight on the side of the oppressed in every domain of life, from family, to culture, to state, to economy, to international relations, and to do so in creative and courageous ways conceived to win immediate improvements in people’s lives even while simultaneously leading toward winning new institutions in the future.

Desirable anarchism transcends a narrowness that has in the past often befallen the approach. Instead of being solely politically anti-authoritarian, as anarchism sometimes largely was in the old days, nowadays being an anarchist more and more implies having a gender, cultural, and an economic, as well as a politically-rooted orientation, with each aspect taken on a par with and also informing the rest.

This at least in its current degree of attainment and aspiration is in many respects new, and it is useful to recall that many anarchists as little as a decade back, perhaps even more recently, would have said that anarchism addresses everything, yes, of course, but all via an anti-authoritarian focus rather than by simultaneously elevating other concepts in their own right. 

Such past anarchists thought, whether implicitly or explicitly, that analysis from an overwhelmingly anti-authoritarian angle could explain the nuclear family better than an analysis rooted as well in kinship concepts, could explain race or religion better than an analysis rooted as well in cultural concepts, and could explain production, consumption, and allocation better than an analysis rooted as well in economic concepts. 

They were wrong in this “political monism,” and it is a great advance that many modern anarchists know this and are broadening their intellectual approach in accord so that anarchism now highlights not only the state, but also gender relations, and not only the economy but also cultural relations and ecology, and indeed highlights freedom in every form it can be sought, and highlights each of these not always and only through the sole prism of authority relations but also by richer and more diverse concepts rooted in each practice.

And of course desirable anarchism not only doesn’t decry technology per se, but it becomes familiar with and employs diverse types of technology as appropriate. It not only doesn’t decry institutions per se, or political forms per se, it tries to conceive new institutions and new political forms for activism and for a new society, including new ways of meeting, new ways of decision making, and new ways of coordinating.

And this desirable anarchism not only doesn’t decry reforms per se, but it struggles to define and win reforms in ways attentive to people’s immediate needs and that improve people’s lives now as well as moving toward eventually transformative future gains.

So why doesn’t the good anarchism trump the not so good anarchism out of visibility? Why doesn’t it clear the way for most everyone to gravitate toward anarchism’s best side?

Part of the answer, already noted, is that elites and mainstream media highlight the not-so-good viewpoints, giving them far more weight and tenacity than they would otherwise enjoy. But part of the answer is also that the good side of contemporary anarchism is in various respects too vague to rise above the rest. What’s the problem? I think it’s at least in considerable part that the good anarchism doesn’t posit clear and compelling goals.

Anarchist Vision?

Anarchism has historically focused on the political realm of life. But even there the emerging anarchism of today’s movements doesn’t clarify for us what an anarchist polity could be. Assuming that societies need to fulfill adjudicative, legislative, and collective implementation functions in the political realm of life, and that societies need to do this via institutions which citizens constitute and partake of, what should these institutions be? If the bad trend says we should favor no political institutions but only spontaneous face to face interaction of free individuals each doing as they choose with no constraints on them, then what should the good trend propose that fulfills the same guiding aspirations but without sacrificing collectivity and continuity? What kind of structures with what kinds of recurring social roles and norms in an anarchist polity will accomplish political functions while also propelling values we support?

It is perhaps premature to expect newly enlarging anarchism to produce from within a compelling vision of future religion, ethnic identification, or cultural community, or a future vision of kinship, sexuality, procreation, or socialization relations, or even a future vision of production, consumption, or allocation relations. But regarding attaining, implementing, and protecting against the abuse of shared political agendas, adjudicating disputes, and creating and enforcing norms of collective interaction, it seems to me that anarchism ought to be where the visionary action is.

Nonetheless, have there been sufficient serious anarchist attempts to explain how legal disputes should be resolved? Legal adjudication should occur? Laws and political coordination should be attained? Violations and disruptions should be handled? And how shared programs should be positively implemented?

In other words, what are the anarchist’s full set of positive institutional alternatives to contemporary legislatures, courts, police, and executive agencies? What institutions do anarchists seek that would advance solidarity, equity, participatory self-management, diversity, sustainability, and whatever other life-affirming values anarchists choose to support, while also accomplishing needed political functions?

Up to the present even the best of anarchism has often been only a rejection of oppression not a vision of liberation. Alexander Berkman writes: “In all times and in all places, whatever be the name that the government takes, whatever has been its origin or its organization, its essential function is always that of oppressing and exploiting the masses, and of defending the exploiters and oppressors. Its principle characteristic and indispensable instruments are the policeman and the tax collector, the soldier and the prison.” Okay, but how then can one organize political functions in accord with anarchist values?

Prodhoun writes “To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied upon, directed, legislated, regimented, closed in, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, evaluated, censored, commanded, all by creatures that have neither the right nor wisdom nor virtue…. To be governed means that at every move, operation, or transaction, one is noted, registered, entered in a census, taxed, stamped, priced, assessed, patented, licensed, authorized, recommended, admonished, prevented, reformed, set right, corrected. Government means to be subjected to tribute, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolized, extorted, pressured, mystified, robbed, all in the name of public utility and the general good. Then at the first sign of resistance or word of complaint, one is repressed, despised, vexed, pursued, hustled, beaten up, garroted, imprisoned, shot, machine gunned, judged, sentenced, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed, and to cap it all, ridiculed, mocked, outraged, and dishonored. That is government, this is its justice and morality!” Fair enough, but then how do we self govern? How do we self manage ourselves and our societies?

Errico Maletesta tells us “What we want, therefore, is the complete destruction of the domination and exploitation of person by person; we want people united … by a conscious and desired solidarity, all cooperating voluntarily for the well being of all; we want society to be constituted for the purpose of supplying everybody with the means for achieving the maximum well being, the maximum possible moral and spiritual development; we want bread, freedom, love, and science — for everybody.” Yes, yes, but how?

Huge numbers of citizens of developed societies are not going to risk what they have, however little it may be in some cases, to pursue a goal about which they have no clarity. How often do they have to ask us what we are for before we give them some serious, sufficiently extensive, carefully thought through, and compelling answers?

Offering a political vision that encompasses key structures for legislation, implementation, adjudication, and enforcement, and that shows how each would be effectively accomplished in a non-authoritarian way promoting positive outcomes would not only provide our contemporary activism much-needed long-term hope, it would also inform our immediate responses to today’s electoral, law-making, law enforcement, and court system, and thus many of our strategic choices.

So shouldn’t today’s anarchist community be generating such political vision? I think it should, and I eagerly hope such an anarchist political vision will be forthcoming soon. Indeed, I suspect that until there is a widespread component of anarchism that puts forth something positive and worthy regarding political goals, the negative component decrying all political structures and even all institutions will remain highly visible and will greatly reduce potential allegiance to anarchism.

Some will say in reply that anarchism has more than enough vision already. Too much vision will constrain ingenuity and innovation. I respond that this is the same type mistake as dumping all political structures, all institutions, all technology, or all reforms. The problem isn’t vision per se. The problem is vision that is held and owned only by elites and that serves only elites. Public, widely accessible vision which truly serves the whole populace, political and otherwise, is precisely what we need.

So what about good anarchism’s potentials? I guess I would say that if anarchism has truly recognized the need for culture-based, economy-based, and gender-based, as well as for polity-based concepts and practice, and if anarchism can support vision emanating from other movements about non-governmental social dimensions while itself providing compelling political vision, perhaps in concert with people developing participatory political vision, and if the anarchist community can avoid strange confusions over technology, political structures, institutions per se, and seeking to win reforms in non reformist ways—then anarchism will have a whole lot going for it and could well become a main 21st century source of movement inspiration and wisdom in the effort to make our world a much better place.

Participatory Economics and Anarchism

As to parecon and anarchism, I think parecon is consistent with the inclinations I described above as characterizing the worthy and desirable anarchism and that parecon even constitutes, with that usage of the label anarchist, an anarchist economic vision that eliminates class and other economy related hierarchy and that would be consistent with and even propel other anarchist aspirations as well. Parecon is, I think, in these senses anarchist economics as well as solidarity economics, diversity economics, equitable economics, self managed economics, and sustainable economics.

Is that all there is to it? Almost, but in my experience some anarchists balk at the assertion that parecon is an anarchist economy and by way of conclusion we can perhaps usefully respond to their concerns.

The issue is that many anarchists feel, understandably, considerable discomfort with anything that isn’t “to each according to need – and from each according to ability.” My contrary belief is that that this rhetorically brilliant and morally profound norm itself unintentionally denies self management and fails utterly to guide economic exchange. I would also say that if we look at the reasons why these difficulties exist for this norm—and if we keep in our hearts and minds the sentiments that cause anarchists to like the norm even as we try to fix it—we can come up with a new norm that both supports self management and guides economic exchange, while it also accords with the underlying sentiments for equity that cause many anarchists to favor the flawed norm.

First, how is “from each according to their ability to each according to need” a denial of self management?

Well what if I want to give less than my ability warrants? Why does no one ever ask that rather obvious question, I wonder? Suppose I am a talented ballplayer, artist, bricklayer, calculator, dancer, surgeon, or whatever, but I would rather do some other type of work than what I excel at. In other words, I want to have society take from me less than my ability would allow me to produce? Does this norm preclude that choice on my part? But would a hypothetical anarchist critic of parecon, or any anarchist anywhere in time or space preclude my working at a job I am less good at if I preferred it to another job I could do better? If the norm doesn’t preclude that, what does the norm mean?

Let’s take it further and make it simpler as well. Suppose I am going to work at least in part in the area of my greatest productive potentials, but that I don’t want to work as long as I am “able” to, but only half that long. Does the from-each to-each norm preclude my making that choice? But would any anarchist preclude my choosing to work at a job less time than I am able to? If not, what does the norm mean?

Now, on the opposite side—what about the “to each” part of the norm? Suppose I want to receive less than someone claims I need. Can I opt for that? Why not? Suppose I want more than someone claims I need, but I claim I need the greater amount? Can I have it? Suppose it is a whole lot more than you think I need—and more instructive, how do you know, and how do I know, what I or anyone else needs? Is need the same as want? Or is it something much less?

Here is the crux of it. Anarchists who advocate “from each / to each” actually mean that each person should seek and receive an amount, which in their society they “need” that is warranted—which is to say each person should seek and receive an amount which is fair, just, equitable. They also mean that each person should offer and deliver labor that is likewise fair and responsible. They don’t favor the idea that anything outside the person impacts what the person does—oddly—given that others are also affected, but then what do they favor? 

One possibility is that anarchists think each producer and consumer will freely decide of their own accord, with zero influence by others, to choose their requests (needs) and their offerings (labor) so that the totals of each are in accord and just. In other words I will work an appropriate amount and consume an appropriate amount because I want to be responsible. Okay, that is fine, but how do I know what is responsible? 

How does even a highly socially responsible person know what is a fair request and a fair offering, even if we assume that everyone would freely opt to be fair. The “from each / to each” norm does nothing to clarify what is warranted and what isn’t. In fact, taken literally it ways what you want is by definition that you want it, warranted. And the work you want to contribute is by definition that you want to contribute it, responsible. Yet every anarchist I have ever talked with about this, when given real examples, comes quickly to the conclusion that other than in cases of disability—where people really do get what they medically need plus a full income—or in the case of other free goods where people can have as much as they want—people should get an amount that is fair, meaning consistent with their activity, and people should give labor that is fair, meaning consistent with what they wish to consume. And now the word “consistent” is key.

The anarchist is trying to avoid the injustice of people getting too much or too little, relative to their efforts, whether due dictates of property, power, or even the value/volume of their personal output. And the anarchist is trying to avoid, as well, any person having to work inordinately and unfairly too much, or work unfairly under harsh conditions. And, the anarchist is also trying to retain self managing say for every participant. 

Well, okay, I completely agree with all those aims. I want the same things. But I look at the situation, and to me those aims don’t imply from-each to-each, but instead imply that people should get income in accord with the duration, intensity, and onerousness of their labor (plus allowances for medical goods, other free goods, etc.) because to me that is equitable and likewise, that people should contribute socially valued labor in accord with the income they receive and effectively utilizing the assets they work with because to me that is responsible, and that both these accommodations should occur in context of self managed, collective, cooperative decisions about the orientation of the economy including what is produced, in what volume, and by what means, all undertaken with full and accurate information about the personal, social, and ecological costs and benefits of available options.

Okay, that is one issue and it leads right to parecon, ironically, as best I can see. And there is another issue. The “from each / to each” norm not only doesn’t tell us who or what decides by what criteria what “warranted need” is and what “warranted ability” is, nor even why I should only get what I need—whatever that means—and only give what I am able to—whatever that is—it also doesn’t provide a way for society to know how much, relative to other desires, people want one choice as compared to how much they want some other choice, or how much people want to replace some onerous work roles as compared to others. In other words, it doesn’t provide needed information for making humane decisions about what directions to move in, including in the short run how much of what to produce, and in the long run what investments to make. This too leads right to the parecon norm and to participatory planning, as best I can tell. But for now, the fact is, every anarchist who offers the “from each to each” norm really means I should get an amount that, within the context where I find myself, is fair which when spelled out turns out to be in accord with how long, how hard, and under what conditions I have worked—and I should give, in turn, an amount that is also fair—which in practice comes down to my working in accord with what I wish to have as my income but also in a manner that produces socially valued output.

If any anarchists disagree, okay, I hope they will take some time to let me know why at sysop@zmag.org and then perhaps we can pursue it.

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