Seven Reasons Why I Advocate Parecon

As economies all around us gasp and constrict, more and more people are willing to seriously recognize what has always been evident – that even at its best and certainly at its worst capitalism is a decrepit monstrosity of a system.

As a proposed replacement for capitalism, Parecon rejects:

1.  Private ownership

2.  Authoritarian decision-making

3.  Remuneration for property, power, or output

4.  Corporate divisions of labor, and

5.  Markets and central planning.

Instead, Parecon favors:

1.  Public Collective Ownership (or non ownership, if you like) with ownership becoming a non-factor that plays no role in income distribution or economic influence.

2.  Workers and consumers organized in councils affecting decisions proportionate to each decision’s effects on them, or what parecon advocates call self-management.

3.  Workers earning more if they work longer, harder, or under worse conditions doing socially valued labor, but for no other reason, which parecon advocates call equitable remuneration.

4.  All jobs including a mix of tasks such that the overall empowerment effect on each worker of the sum total of his or her tasks is roughly equal to the overall empowerment effect on every other worker of the sum total of tasks they each do, which parecon advocates call balanced job complexes.

5.  Finally, levels of production and distribution determined by a cooperative negotiation of the self managing workers and consumers councils, in which workers and consumers propose and then adapt preferences in light of information about other workers and consumers’ preferences and in light of the implied full social costs and benefits, which parecon advocates call participatory planning.

Here are seven reasons why I advocate parecon, and hope others will too.

1. These features attain classlessness

The usual approach to class emphasizes that capitalists own the means of production and workers own only their ability to do work. Other classes exist, but less centrally. Little and big owners and skilled and unskilled workers exist as well, but also secondarily. Mainly, by virtue of their ownership rights capitalists rule, even though workers have the numbers and the collective capacity to win control.

In thinking through that formulation, many years back, Robin Hahnel and I decided it was misleading by roughly a third. What about managers, doctors, lawyers, and engineers? We were dissatisfied with grouping highly empowered employees who enjoyed high levels of influence and income, either with subordinate workers below or with rich propertied owners above. It seemed to us that the group situated between labor and capital differed fundamentally from those above but also from those below.

Starting from that belief, parecon extended the insights of early anarchists like Bakunin who had a similar view, and of later libertarian socialists like Barbara Ehrenreich who had virtually the same view and spurred much of our thinking on the matter, to highlight that a group becomes a class if its economic position gives it a shared methodology for personal advance, a shared self image and image of other classes, and especially a potential to rule economic life. This could be because of property relations, but it also could be because of the social relations of work and distribution.

This led us to the view that the class between labor and capital (which we took to calling the coordinator class) matters not only to how capitalism works, but also to what can replace capitalism.

With this third class highlighted, that is, it became clear to us that 20th century socialism wasn’t classless but instead had core institutions that elevated this class even while eliminating owners. Workers in 20th century socialism didn’t self manage economic outcomes or equitably share society’s output but, instead, 20th century socialism had a coordinator class situated above workers, which did virtually all the empowering tasks and, as a result, decided economic outcomes while enriching themselves at workers’ expense.

So with this set of insights, it became clear to us that while moving beyond capitalism might attain classlessness, it might also attain coordinatorism. That is, a new economy beyond capitalism might elevate those who monopolize empowering circumstances – the coordinator class – above those who mainly follow orders and suffer tedious conditions – the working class – as in the case of 20th century socialism.

In contrast, Parecon, and this is reason one why I advocate it, doesn’t elevate coordinators, but instead creates true classlessness. The features of parecon most central to its classlessness are that parecon explains and emphasizes how corporate divisions of labor and market allocation each help produce the coordinators as a dominating class, and that in their place parecon establishes balanced job complexes and also participatory planning which together remove the empowerment differential at the root of coordinatorism.

2. Parecon attains self-management

I became a leftist in the mid 1960s imbibing the then prevalent idea that people should control their own lives. However, trying to apply the sentiment wasn’t so easy. It was clear to me that we couldn’t all just do whatever we wanted, a view that some of my friends in the new left gravitated toward. We couldn’t employ someone as a wage slave, for example. We couldn’t steal, or kill. More, we couldn’t unilaterally do any work we hankered to, or consume any item we hungered for, because managing ourselves ought to be done consistent with others being able to manage themselves to the same degree.

Following that participatory logic, self-management came to mean for me that each person should, to the extent possible, influence decisions proportionate to the extent of the decisions’ effects on him or her.

Sometimes, familiar majority rule would be the best approximation to self-management. Other times, consensus would better approximate delivering self-management. Sometimes, to best approach self-management, two thirds might be required for making a decision, or even just one person alone, as in me deciding how to arrange my desk.

Likewise, sometimes extensive discussion, debate, and refinement of proposals might sometimes be needed for self-management, but other times, quicker procedures might be sufficient.

What followed from these actually quite obvious and even trivial insights, was that we should choose decision making procedures to best ensure that all participants have formal influence in proportion as they are affected right up to the point where seeking further precision in that equilibration would cost more than it would gain. Self-management, defined this way, becomes a tall order and a strong guide to what we can advocate.

An economy is a general system in which each choice sets the context for all other choices. If I consume a pencil, you can’t consume it. If we produce 100,000 pencils, we aren’t producing whatever we could have produced with the labor and resources that went into the 100,000 pencils. Doing any one thing, we can see, foregoes using the involved energy, resources, and labor to do some other thing. This production affects that production, and vice versa, throughout the economy.

Further, of course workers producing pencils are mightily affected by pencil production. Likewise, clearly pencil consumers are considerably affected by it. But we also need to note that those who don’t want pencils are also affected, because if there was no pencil production there might be more pens or cheaper pens, or more of something else those pencil haters would enjoy.

It follows that pencil workers must have a say in their workplaces about their production activities, but also that pencil consumers must have a say, and everyone else too – and that we all must have a say, indeed, about everything that is produced and consumed, all in proportion as we each are affected by each item, which of course varies from case to case, and includes being affected by exclusion or attrition.

It isn’t sufficient, in other words, that we have workers and consumers councils and that each council uses self managed decision-making methods in its local immediate choices. That’s necessary, yes, but suppose workers in a plant make various local operating decisions in a locally self managing manner, but central planners then tell them how much they must produce, or markets impose output levels they have too little say over. Goodbye self-management.

Likewise, suppose some consumers locally choose what they want from among society’s outputs using highly self-managing methods such as looking at lists of availabilities and freely choosing among them, however the list of items they choose among and the relative prices of those items are determined overwhelmingly with the same consumers having too little say. Again: goodbye self-management.

Even beyond the above, having markets imposes many other decision making problems, such as that those who breathe pollution nearly always have too little say in car sales unless they happen to be the buyer, or that those who produce bicycles typically have too little say in the availability of rubber or of roads for riding.

So, saying that parecon attains self management, which is my second reason for advocating it, is saying not only that parecon utilizes self managing decision making procedures in its worker and consumer councils, but also that parecon accomplishes economic functions in the large while allotting, at least within an acceptable margin of error – proportionate self-managing say to all.

The features of parecon most critical to its solution to the self-management problem are realizing that familiar corporate divisions of labor and market allocation produce the coordinator class as a separate and dominating elite, realizing that sharply hierarchical decision-making and harsh differentials in income destroy self management, and finally, institutionally committing to self managed councils, balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration, and participatory planning in place of the offending capitalist and coordinatorist options.

3. Parecon attains equity

Regarding equity, parecon says we should each receive for our socially desired contributions a share of outputs in proportion to the useful effort and sacrifice we expend – which is to say that we should get more if we do useful work longer, more intensely, or while enduring more onerous conditions, but for no other reason.

In a parecon, there is no Bill Gates who gets income equal to that of whole populations of numerous countries combined, due to owning property. There is also no Tiger Woods who gets less than Gates but still an incredibly excessive amount by virtue of the value of his fantastic athletic talent to those who enjoy golf tournaments. No one gets income in a parecon due to being born with highly valued talents or capacities, due to the luck of producing something highly valued, due to working with highly productive partners, due to owning property, or due to being personally or collectively strong enough to take it. You may be more talented or work on something more valuable or be stronger, etc., but you get more income only for working at producing socially useful output, longer, harder, or under worse conditions.

Why do I keep mentioning that the product that earns income has to be socially useful? I do so because it clarifies that you can’t earn income by digging holes in your back yard and filling them, however long or intensely you may work at it. Nor can you earn income for making something people desire, but working in a slipshod or incompetent fashion. In such cases, not all the time or intensity you are expending is warranted by the anticipated desirability of what’s produced relative to the assets used up in production, and therefore not all of it deserves remuneration. I can’t be shortstop for the NY Yankees or center for the LA Lakers or a surgeon for anyone in a parecon no matter how hard I would be willing to work at it. My lack of relevant talents precludes such a choice.

The claim that parecon attains equity means, therefore, that parecon’s combination of methods and structures ensures that each worker is afforded a share of the social product in proportion to the effort and sacrifice he or she expends on what society deems to be socially warranted tasks. But parecon is not manic to the tenth decimal place, of course, and in different pareconish workplaces we can confidently predict that workers will adopt methods of measurement they prefer, though consistent with the overarching guidelines. Similarly, those who cannot work are of course remunerated a full income as well as for their medical needs.

What parecon contributes regarding equity, therefore, and the third reason why I advocate it, is clarification of equity’s meaning and composition, plus core institutions that facilitate non intrusively attaining equity, including its participatory planning system, new remunerative norm, and self managed councils.

4. Parecon attains economic solidarity

An important movement of activists centered in Latin America and parts of Europe, particularly Spain, favor what they call solidarity economics. They reject economic relations that cause actors to see one another as opponents or as means to ends. They advocate, instead, arraying the interests of each actor in accord with the interests of all other actors.

Even in a solidarity economy, however, I must compete with Peyton Manning or Derek Jeter if I want to be starting quarterback of the Colts or starting shortstop of the Yankees. But once we have responsibilities, advocates of solidarity economics want each person’s pursuit of gain to be consistent with or even enhance everyone else’s pursuit of gain. Solidarity advocates reject an arrangement wherein for me to gain requires that you lose, or vice versa. Indeed, solidarity advocates prefer that an economy cause even greedy folks to respect and facilitate other people’s fulfillments, if they are to attain their own.

The claim that parecon promotes solidarity, which is my fourth reason for advocating it, therefore means that parecon’s institutions ensure that for me to materially advance either requires that the whole social product grows – which benefits everyone – or requires that I work longer, harder, or under worse conditions, which doesn’t impede others from earning similarly.

Likewise, it means that when we consider choices for new technologies or other policy decisions, my interests and other people’s interests never systematically and repetitively clash and, most often, are in accord. For example, we all benefit from the most effective reduction in onerous labor and not solely from a change instituted in our own workplaces because when the dust settles on labor saving changes wherever the proximately occur in the economy, we all wind up with average (balanced) work conditions so that attaining the best average is in everyone’s interest.

Parecon’s remunerative scheme, balanced job complexes, and participatory allocation together create this solidarity-fostering context.

5. Parecon can help overcome cynicism, a large obstacle to activism

“There is no alternative,” gleefully intoned then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, to accepting the horrors of capitalism. And if Thatcher were correct that there actually is no better alternative than capitalism, then indeed, it would make sense to make the best of what we have. People who think there is no alternative quite logically see leftist entreaties to revolution as juvenile idiocy. They tell us to get a life. They tell us to grow up. And they are not being perverse. Indeed, I too might say something like that to someone who kept regaling me with entreaties to reject aging, to end gravity, or to blow into the wind.

Endless entreaties to undertake what appears to be a fool’s errand, that is, rightly engender short pithy replies. And that’s how most of the population sees radical activism, as a fool’s errand. If society doesn’t pursue one war, it will pursue some other. If one group isn’t homeless or starving, some other group will be homeless or starving. People’s belief in the inevitability of social suffering, which is actually warranted if you believe that homelessness and starvation are just unavoidable facts of life, ensures their social passivity.

What I mean by claiming that parecon can help overcome cynicism, which is my fifth reason for advocating it, is that if parecon becomes a clearly enunciated and widely shared vision it will help people recognize that there is a classless, solidaritous, equitable, and self managing alternative to capitalism that they can understand, adapt, advocate, and win.

6. Parecon can inform activist focus

We want a new world. Okay, but then what demands should we make? How should we talk about changes we seek? How should we explain where sought changes would lead?

Seeking gains that improve people’s lives ways that raise consciousness of current fundamental problems and future preferable alternatives, and that simultaneously arouse desires for the preferred future, is at the heart of social struggle.

Our projects must not only seek to meet current needs, that is, but must also inspire desires for further changes and prepare the way to winning them.

When seeking better wages for workers, for example, a parecon advocate wouldn’t argue that their output warrants it, or that they have the power to take it, but that equity demands it, and demands even more.

When fighting to correct especially egregious workplace injustices, a parecon advocate wouldn’t offer that as the full goal, but would instead argue for it as a step toward self-managing councils and balanced job complexes.

When instituting partial correctives to markets, or implementing parallel structures like participatory budgets, a parecon advocate would not do it to perfect markets, but as worthy changes pointing toward true participatory planning.

In short, my claiming that parecon can inform activist focus, which is my sixth reason for advocating it, means I believe parecon can help us conceive and pursue struggles not only in light of current possibilities and our available strength, but also in light of where we want to wind up in the future, fostering consciousness and confidence that can help us get there.

7. Parecon can inform activist organization

It is an old anarchist adage, and I think a very correct one, that we should incorporate the seeds of the future in the present. As Martin Buber put his version of the insight, “one cannot in the nature of things expect a little tree that has been turned into a club to put forth leaves.”

The idea is simple enough. Our movements, in their organizational structure, decision-making methods, modes of remuneration, and divisions of labor, as well as in their broader gender, sexual, racial, cultural, and political relations, and in their ties one to each other, should try as much as possible to embody, refine, and advocate for the relations we desire to live under in the future, rather than taking on the characteristics of oppressions that we seek to transcend or avoid.

This is partly so that we can learn more about and therefore become better able to seek our ultimately desired goals. It is also, however, partly so that our efforts are true to our values and aspirations rather than contradicting them, and so we inspire people who we address rather than repulsing them.

As such, we should have movements that embody what we seek for race relations, gender relations, political relations, and economic relations. The implications for vision are clear since without a vision of what the future might be, it is impossible to self-consciously embody the future’s features in the present.

For example, since we want a society with economic self management and political participation and self management, we do not create hierarchical organizations that elevate a few members above all others, and even if we have such arrangements at some point, as residues from the past, or to operate in horribly constricted contexts, we work hard to revamp them in accord with our aims, and similarly regarding residual oppressive gender, race, and class relations inside our organizations.

In short, and this is my seventh reason for being an advocate, this claim says parecon can inform how we construct and carry out our projects, organizations, and movements to incorporate, as best we are now able to, the seeds of future economic relations including councils, self managed decision making, equitable remuneration, balanced job complexes, and even interrelations among actors that embody the logic and sometimes even the features of participatory planning.

8. Parecon, or if not, what?

Here is a kind of eighth claim, to close this short kick off essay.

If we find after intellectually testing them and compared with relevant experience that the above seven claims are true, then surely together we will also agree they constitute a compelling set of reasons not only for me to advocate parecon, but for you or anyone else who seeks classlessness, self management, equity, solidarity, an end to cynicism, creating clear activist focus, and creating effective activist organization, to also advocate parecon.

If, however, we find that the above seven claims are false – then you, I, and others who agree with us will need to find another economic vision, and a broader social vision as well, that can fulfill the implicit criteria of worth of these aims.

Any lesser agenda implies that our future is going to be barely more enlightened and humane than our past – and that should be unacceptable to us and to all activists pursuing human freedom and liberation.

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