Participatory Economics & the Bolivarian Revolution

The following is a transcription of a talk given at the foreign ministry lecture hall in Caracas, Venezuela, July 18, 2016.

First, I want to thank you for inviting me here to speak.

Considering that I come from the the United States, which is the world’s foremost criminal state, the world’s most hypocritical and violent state, the state with the most per capita prisoners in the world, the state with the widest gap between rich and poor, the state that holds the record as the number one arms merchant of the world, the state with the most educational facilities per capita yet also arguably the most socially and politically ignorant population in the world, the only state to have used nuclear weapons, and the only state that believes it owns the world, it is a remarkable testimony to your generosity and hospitality that you would be here today to listen to me.

I only hope I can make it worthwhile.

My topic is economic vision for the future. I like to call the vision I believe in participatory economics. Some might call it participatory socialism. Some might call it 21st century socialism. Whatever name we settle on, what is it? I will try to provide a summary.

Suppose we consider ourselves, we here in this room, the workforce of a workplace that produces bicycles. We have thrown out our past owners. We have to decide how we wish to proceed.

How shall we organize our workplace to make it a worthy model for a future economy?

First, I think we would each certainly want to have a say in decisions, so for that purpose we would establish a workers council as a place for decisions to be made.

But how much influence should we each have in each decision?

We could opt for democracy. We each get one vote, majority rules. If we did, it would be great progress compared to the brutal authoritarianism of corporate decision making, but I think it would not be ideal.

Not all decisions are alike. Some mainly involve just a few people, or even only one person. Others affect mainly a group of people in a workplace, but not others even in that workplace. Others will comparably affect everyone in a workplace.

To me, it doesn’t make sense for everyone to have one vote about when I take a break for lunch. I should decide that. But it also doesn’t make sense for just me, or just a few of us, to alone decide how long the work day is, or the pace of work. That affects everyone.

Self management seems to me to be a much better option even than majority rule. Each of us has a say in decisions in proportion to the degree we will be affected by them. If we will be more affected, we get more say. If we will be less affected, we get less say. Sometimes majority rule for a decision makes sense. Other times, consensus, or two thirds needed makes more sense. And sometimes all are involved but other times only some.

I like to call this approach collective self management. And I propose it for decision making in a good economy. Perhaps someone will later raise a concern that employing self management will yield bad decisions due to underutilizing some people’s expertise or expecting to much from other people, and if so, we can discuss that.

But, to continue thinking through our vision, what about what economists call remuneration? How much should each of us earn?

We should not get what we can take, which is a thugish norm that characterizes market exchange. We should not get profits from private property, which is a capitalist approach. We shouldn’t even get more just because we are lucky enough to have better tools, or to have been born stronger or with special talents.

No, instead I would suggest it is ethically and economically superior that we receive income for the duration, the intensity, and the onerousness of socially valued work. If we work longer, or if we work harder, or if we work under worse conditions, if we are producing things people want, we should get more. I call that equitable remuneration. Perhaps later someone will raise the objection that this won’t provide needed incentives for people to be doctors and engineers and the like…and if so we can discuss that.

But, for now, to proceed, suppose we set up our workplace and we have both workers collective self management and also equitable remuneration. I should note that this often happens, at the outset, when workers take over factories. However, suppose we also retain the old and familiar corporate division of labor, which also often happens when workers take over factories.

Do we already have a worthy workplace? A 21st century socialist workplace?

Well, what is that old corporate division of labor that we retained? And what impact does it have?

A corporate division of labor is when about 20% of the workforce does essentially all the empowering work, by which I mean they do all the work that conveys to whoever does it skills, information, social connections, and confidence.

The other 80% does only rote and repetitive work which exhausts, deskills, and isolates whoever does it.

So let’s suppose you in the first batch of rows, over there, are the 20% who have a monopoly on the empowering work of society. And let’s suppose the rest of you do the remaining disempowering tasks.

I contend that in our workers council, you in this section who have a monopoly on empowering work will come to council meetings prepared, confident, and with essential information. As a result you will do nearly all the talking. You will set the agendas. Your desires will prevail. The rest of us will basically be observers, inessential, bored.

In time, we who are inessential will stop attending, and at that point you who are empowered will raise your own wages, eliminate self management, and otherwise improve your own conditions because you will see yourselves as more intelligent, more important, more capable, and more worthy, rather than as benefitting from monopolizing empowering work? And this will happen even against our initial intentions. It will be a product of our circumstances.

So, it turns out, the corporate division of labor, regardless of any one not wanting it to happen, will undo our self management and equitable remuneration. By its intrinsic properties the corporate division of labor, that we mistakenly, and even reflexively preserved, will bring back class division and class rule…which is the outcome typical, I should note, of 20th century socialism.

Why do I say class rule? Because I believe the 20% are one class, who I call the coordinator class. And the 80% are another class, who I call the working class. And the former rule the latter. And it is precisely because of their positions n in the economy, not due to ownership, but due to the work each does.

So, what is the alternative?

I call it balanced job complexes. The idea is that we each do a mix of tasks suited to us, but the tasks are assembled so that we all do a fair mix of empowering and of disempowering work within our overall assignment and as a result our jobs make us comparably ready to participate in decision making, rather than making some of us dominate the rest in a class hierarchy.

And yes, this means all of us do some empowering work and that no one does only empowering work. Perhaps later someone will raise the objection that this would be unproductive due to underutilizing some peoples’ talents or due to other people having to do things they were not suited for, and, if so, we can discuss it.

Okay, so now we have worker self management, equitable remuneration, and balanced job complexes… are we finished?

Well, I believe we have the core ingredients of a desirable workplace. But how do we connect up with other workplaces? What is our approach to allocation?

The familiar answer is to utilize markets or central planning.

But I contend that markets and central planning are each in their own way flawed. Using either markets or central planning creates tremendous pressures that undo the other three attributes we have to this point arrived at.

Markets have too many faults to even summarize them all, but suffice to say that they compel the worst kind of self seeking individualism, they employ remuneration for power and or for output, and they require that each workplace limits costs and maximizes revenues at the expense of workers, ourselves, so as to compete and not go out of business, behavior that requires that we opt for the corporate division of labor to empower people suit d to the antisocial task to impose speed up, reduce air conditioning, not clean up pollution, eliminate day care, and other such steps contrary to the inclinations and interests of the workers.

Central planning of course imposes authoritarian hierarchy against self management, and in that hierarchy, again, the division of having a dominant coordinator class and subordinate working class.

The alternative to these flawed approaches to allocation which by their intrinsic logic reverse our other gains, I call participatory planning. This type of decentralized planning requires that we add consumers neighborhood councils including their federation into regional communes…to our set of institutions, because , of course, allocation decisions affect consumers as well as workers.

Then the participatory planning process occurs broadly as follows…

Councils propose their activity, both for production and consumption. The information is tallied and circulated. Councils in turn refine their proposals, and this occurs again, and so on, through a number of rounds. Of course there are additional features, but the basic idea is that there is a cooperative negotiation of inputs and outputs, without competition and without authoritative imposition.

As with each other aspect of the vision, of course there is much more we can and wild need to say to have full clarity, but in sum, we now have the essentials of an economic vision that I call participatory economics, or that you might wish to call participatory socialism.

Of course we can refine the basic institutions, adapt them, and enrich them depending on the particulars of a country, and on our future experiences, but these basics provide the essential vision.

But why does having a clear, shared economic vision matter?

I would contend that we need shared institutional vision to guide practice so that it leads where we intend to arrive.

We need shared vision to provide informed hope.

We need shared vision so people can make the vision their own, add to it, refine it, judge it.

We need shared vision to avoid preserving class division and class rule.

We need shared vision to realize how self management needs participation, which in turn needs confident workers who know what they desire, which in turn needs balanced job complexes and collective cooperative allocation, but which also needs lots of training not least regarding aims, for workers who until now have endured only disempowering circumstances.

As one insight, for example, perhaps the Bolivarian movement should clarify its aims and then have something like the literacy campaign you earlier had but this time to involve the population both in understanding, and then in augmenting clearly enunciated Bolivarian institutional aims.

As another insight, when nationalization occurs, this vision suggests it will suffer reductions in productivity unless workers enjoy real self management with real participation and balanced job complexes. If the nationalized workplace differs little for the worker due to retaining the coordinator class domination of empowering work, then workers will be alienated and even resist participating, as well as disinclined to work hard.

You can’t cross a half a bridge, but the fault doesn’t reside in the half you built, nationalization, but rather In the half you didn’t build, greater participation, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning.

Finally, one last comment on who we relate to and organize.

When we have a shared vision, when we have our eyes on the ultimate prize, we realize what it requires. For example, we realize a new economy and society worth having has to appeal to far more than half a population so we constantly prioritize reaching out to people who have not yet become partners in the endeavor.

On an earlier trip to Venezuela I asked to meet with Bolivarian activists who were organizing to enlist new allies from opposition neighborhoods and particularly among opposition youth.

I was told no effort went to that. It was a waste of time.

I think and hope clear vision can reverse that mood and facilitate such outreach which is, I think without any doubt, essential, if the Bolivarian revolution is to advance.

Again, I thank you for taking this time to hear me out, and I hope you will raise your questions and concerns so we can explore them together.


  1. avatar
    Michael Albert July 21, 2016 1:32 pm 

    It was a modest audience inside the foreign ministry bldg – some gov. folks, some students, others. People quite liked the content, I believe, but that is unlikely to have on-goiing implications, that I can see.

  2. avatar
    Philip Gan July 21, 2016 6:11 am 

    Great! The last time you spoke in Venezuela was 2008, right? What kind of people made up the audience this time? How was the talk received?

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