Istanbul Talk for Istanbul METU Alumni Association
(5 December 2007) What is the population of
There are many people in the
However, I know we don’t have a chance of winning if all we try to do is “fight the good fight.” Suppose we are really serious and we really do want to win. We have to do what is necessary, step by step and methodically over years, to develop a movement that can win. What is the first question that should arise for us?
I was once on a panel in about 1995. There were five or six of us on the panel. It was a green party panel in the
A very conservative estimate of the number of such folks was 10 million. Probably a closer estimate would be 15 million or more. So let’s take 10 million as our number. The next part of the thought was: We’re supposed to be the good people. We’re supposed to be the caring people. We’re supposed to be the insightful people. Where the hell are we? And I had thought to myself, sitting there on that Green panel, if we had retained all those people, and if each of those people had been trying to attract new people, and we had been holding those as well, then by 1995, as thirty years had gone by, we would have had thirty, forty, or sixty million people on the left in the US.
And I asked myself whose fault was it that we didn’t have them? It was our fault! If we didn’t have them, was it because the government was powerful? No, they get repressed away. Was it because the media was immense and powerful and manipulating? No, because I am not talking about losing people we didn’t have access to. I am talking about losing who we got into the vicinity of, and had a chat with or in most cases worked with.
After all, if we leftists are the good, caring people with a good vision for the society, then our movement should be gravitational. As people come into the vicinity of it, they should be drawn closer to it. They should be more committed to it over time. But what the thought experiment I did while sitting on that Green panel shows, is that instead, people bounced off our movement, rather than sticking to it. So I decided to call this “the stickiness problem”, because we couldn’t get even people we were reaching to stick.
This problem was not small. If we are serious about changing the world, this problem is infinitely more important, than coming up with the third decimal point analysis of the World Bank. Arguably the “stickiness problem” should be our prime focus. It is something that we could solve, and if we did solve it, the impact would be huge. On the other hand, if the movement doesn’t think that it can win, then this stickiness problem is sort of boring and useless. Can’t win anyhow, so why bother trying to solve it. And anyway, it is much easier to write a book about how bad poverty, war, and capitalism are. We can do that with great confidence that we know what the answers are. We can do that and look erudite. So if we want to win, and if we want to develop a movement that can do so, one thing we have to talk about is the “stickiness problem”. I will come back to this, now another problem...
When I became a leftist in the mid-sixties, people were saying: “Ah, I get it, you annoying person, you don’t like what we have - but what do you want?” And I heard this question repeated for forty years: “What do you want?” And the left doesn’t answer.
Suppose we are made a stack of all the leaflets, books, essays, videos and interviews that have been produced by the left from sixties until now, that explain how bad racism, sexism, capitalism or war are,. It would probably reach to the moon; it would be a very high pile. People are not asking, please notice, over and over, “explain again please for me why poverty is bad”, “explain again why sexism hurts,” “explain again how bombs kill,” they are asking “What do you want?” And we answered, over the years, with a moon-high stack of noise explaining how bad everything is to the people who are suffering it and already know. Yes, we gave deep and sometimes even brilliant expositions of causes…but, still…
Suppose instead we made a stack of all of leaflets, books, essays, videos and interviews that answered the question “What do you want?”, that put forward a real, institutional vision of an alternative to capitalism, racism and sexism, I claim that stack might reach my knee. It is rare indeed that anything we produce even address the vision problem. And you often can’t even put the book with “Socialism” in its title in this stack, something that ostensibly it trying to answer the vision problem, because with few exceptions if you read one of those books, there are three hundred pages about what is wrong with capitalism, and five pages on what we want. So I call this “the vision problem.” I want to talk about this first and then I will come back to the stickiness problem. They are partly connected, as we will see later.
So suppose we want to deal with the vision problem.
In 1969 when people came to me and ask “what do you want”, and they were partly saying it just to shut me up. They knew that we didn’t have an answer. And what they were saying was: “You can’t give me an answer, so get the hell out of my face, get off of the street and go home!” And my response to that was basically something like this: “I don’t need to have an alternative way of doing cotton to be against slavery. I can be against slavery, even though I don’t know what the answer is yet about how things are going to work when we get rid of it.” And similarly I don’t need an alternative to capitalism to know that I am an anti-capitalist, and I am going to get rid of it, and I am going to fight against it. I said that in 1969 and I was technically, logically correct. I was morally correct. But I was strategically completely incorrect. And regrettably that is the reaction of the left ever since. And now, when people ask the vision question they are mostly not trying to shut us up. They are instead asking the question because they sincerely want to know what we want. I claim that the absence of a vision is a very big part of why the left is so small. I know I am only motivating a discussion about vision, so far, but we have a lot of time, so bear with me while I do that just a bit more.
In the period of gearing up for bombing
I said to him, while we were gearing up for the bombing, “If you study and you look deeply, you see all the groups on the ground in Afghanistan, all the groups that are providing aid, food, and shelter to the population, are saying to us: ‘Don’t bomb!’”. In fact they were on their knees pleading with us. “Don’t bomb, because if you do bomb, you may kill five to seven million people.” Not with the shrapnel from the bombs, but because you are going to disrupt the growing season, and there will be starvation.
And I described this in some detail and the fellow whom I was talking started to cry. Not many people in the left have that reaction. But he felt real pain, and, remember, he voted for Bush. For the sake of completeness, nobody in the media or academia or the government contested the idea that five to seven people could die. That was accepted as the professional assessment of the likelihood before the bombing. So we bombed despite the possibility of that many people dying.
And this fellow then said to me: “But Michael, I don’t want to hear this, my wife doesn’t want to hear this, my friends don’t want to hear this, and the people who work for me don’t want to hear this.” And I said back to him: “Just like you don’t want to hear a description of the pain and horror that an earthquake can impose on people.” And he said to me. “That is exactly right! There is nothing I or anybody I know can do about it.” “I can work hard, try to get a little more income; try to take care of the people who I love; try to make a nice environment where I am, but I can’t influence that.” Notice, he didn’t say “You lie. The
Then I said to him: “Look, if I was saying, in order to stop the bombing, we have to overthrow the government and overthrow capitalism; I would understand a little bit better your saying that we can’t do it, or at least we can’t do it in time. But surely you can see if we had twenty or thirty million people demonstrating in the streets in the
The point is, this person who voted for Bush, really does understand how bad things are, how criminal and unjust things are, but he thinks There Is No Alternative! TINA. He thinks it’s just inevitable.
The vision problem is this: We keep telling the people “poverty hurts, racism hurts, sexism hurts, and war hurts.” But people already know. More than that, they know that it is systemic. They don’t know the nineteenth decimal point detail, but they know the main points. In contrast, when we built movements in the 1960s nobody knew. When those movements began, people were horrified with the hypocrisy and the lies. They were surprised to find out how horrible
And the same thing happened for race; the same thing happened for poverty. People discovered that the cause of suffering wasn’t personal inadequacy. It was a systemic crime. And people got very very angry at having been deceived and at the injustice and basically exploded into the movements of the 60s. Now, however, four decades later, that scenario can’t be repeated. It will never happen in the same way, again, because now everyone knows everything is broken. There is no shock in our messages about injustice. There is no surprise.
This guy visiting the house who voted for Bush knows broadly the state of the world, the horror of it. He wasn’t shocked by my revelations. They came as no real surprise. Instead of the ignorance of injustice being the obstacle to people acting, what we have to overcome with our speeches and our talks and our writing, is the ignorance of an alternative, the belief that there is no alternative, the belief that nothing we do will matter. I am going to hammer on this a little bit, then we will get to addressing the vision problem, because even though many people nowadays are finally saying they see the need for vision, in fact most people don’t act on this recognition, this insight.
I was recently in
We can put that question a little larger even. Before the war in
This is the biggest question that confronts a day-to-day antiwar organizer who wants to win. Yet no day-to-day organizers and with a few exceptions no commentators even notice the problem, much less try to explain it and do something about it.
The drop off in active opposition didn’t happen because all these millions of people got scared. And it didn’t happen because the organizers suddenly lost their opposition. Still they oppose the war, just as much as the outset. It happened for due to the same dynamic as with the guy who came to our house before the Afghan war. It happened due to a feeling of hopelessness, a feeling that nothing we do matters, and so there is no point in demonstrating. This is regrettably a self-fulfilling prophecy, because it is true that the
During the anti-Vietnam war, as it went on and on, many big-shot congressmen, senators, and even corporate executives changed sides and became antiwar. The big-shots thought that everybody is interested what they think and feel, so when they had a change of mind they held press conferences to explain why they changed their views.
None of them got up and said: “I was for the war, now I am against the war, because I discovered that we are obliterating the population of the
The elite lawyers, and doctors and congressmen, and senators didn’t even say: “I discovered that American soldiers are dying in great numbers.” They didn’t care about that either. So here is what they did say: “In all good conscience, I can no longer support the war in
So the irony nowdays is that the opposition in the
I think it is partly because we don’t understand what we are doing. We don’t understand that to have success requires that we have demonstrations after which we get a little bigger, a little stronger, and a little more committed. We think success for a given protest is ending the war with that protest. When it doesn’t happen, we get frustrated and go home. Instead of seeing what we have accomplished, how we can proceed and end the war, we take war’s temporary continuation as evidence we can never succeed, and stop trying.
The second problem contributing to folks giving up rather than persisting is the vision problem. We lack an overarching idea about what the alternative is, and how to reach it; and that too frustrates us and leaves us getting depressed over time, and going home. And then there is also the stickiness problem.
Okay, so finally getting to the topic at hand – sorry for all the delays leading up to it - what is the answer to the question “What do you want?” How are we going to come up with an answer that is compelling, real and inspiring? What is the alternative to capitalism? I want to propose a possible alternative that is called participatory economics.
Our problem is to come up with an alternative to capitalism? How can we even think about that? OK this is how I think about it, and maybe it is a good way, maybe it is bad way, you have to decide.
First of all, what is economics; what do we want economics to do; and how does economics do it. Economics is, as we all know, just producing stuff, distributing stuff, and consuming stuff. Given that, then, what do we want for an economy? What values should it promote? That’s a methodical way to develop a vision. First the values we want. Then the institutions we want.
Economy affects relations between people. What are the values that we want an economy to implement regarding relations among people? Do we want the economy to make us antisocial, individualist and not caring about each other?
You say, no, we want solidarity, and I agree. Solidarity is the value we want to have, and it means caring about each other. We want our economy to cause us to be mutually concerned, to cause us to have solidarity, instead of having an economy that compels us to enter into a rat race where the only way you get ahead is by trampling on everybody else. So that is our first value: SOLIDARITY. And it’s not controversial. I don’t know anybody who would say, other things being equal; I would like a society that makes people antisocial and noxious to each other. Everybody will agree that solidarity is a good value.
What else? Well, an economy sets the range of options that we have available. What is our left value for that? Do we want a narrow homogenized range of options? If we don’t want that, what do we want? You say diversity! Yes, I agree. We want a wide range of options. We don’t want all our eggs in one basket, as the saying does. We want choice, and to be able to enjoy that others do things we don’t. So that is the second value, and it is also not controversial.
Next? Well, an economy sets how much stuff we get. It affects people’s incomes. What is the value for that? You say equity. I agree, but what does equity mean? This is now controversial. An economist would say there are a few possible choices we can make in how to distribute income. Let’s consider them, to find the value we like.
The first possibility is that you get income for all the property you own, for the productivity that comes from it. If you are Bill Gates, and you have a piece of paper in your pocket, a deed that says you own a large part of Microsoft, you are worth much more than the population of many third world countries combined. I assume that the people here will agree that it makes no sense for people get vast amounts of income because they have a piece of paper in their pocket. So I will reject that.
The second possible norm is what people teach in the
The next possible norm is the one that most socialists advocate. This norm is that each person should get back from society as an income an equivalent to what they contribute by their labors. This sounds pretty good. If I contribute a certain amount by my labors, then if get less, that means somebody gets some of what I produced. If I get more, that means I am getting some of somebody else’s product. So I this norm we should get equivalent to what we contribute by our own efforts. But I reject this norm, even though it is what most socialists advocate, for a number of reasons. And we can explore what those are.
How many of you know who Michael Jordan, the basketball player is? Sadly, virtually everyone. Well, okay, Michael Jordan is an American basketball player in the NBA, probably the most famous American athlete in the last fifty years. He is retired as a player now. While he was playing, however, running up and down the court and shooting baskets, he was earning say twenty million dollars a year for playing basketball. Okay, how many of you think he was overpaid? Virtually everyone. How many of you think he is underpaid? OK, no one, and that means that none of you are socialists, because if you think people should be remunerated for the value of their product,
Let’s do another example. The two of you there, in the first row, go out to the field to cut sugar cane. You, on the left, are six foot tall, two hundred twenty pounds, solid as a rock, and very strong. You, on the right, are not nearly as strong. You both go out into the fields and work for eight hours. You work under the same sun with the same conditions. You, the big strong one, cut this much, a very big pile. And you, not so strong, cut this much, half as big a pile. Should we pay you each so the one who is stronger gets twice the income as the weaker one? If we are remunerating according to output, that is what we should do. If we think that there is something wrong with doing that, then we have to look for some other norm. This is a question of what we like and don’t like…of values…not of facts.
Suppose the two of you go out the next day and this time, you who are smaller have a better tool, a better cutter. Now the size of the piles of product are reversed and you who are smaller but who have a better tool cut a bigger pile, and you who are bigger but using a worse tool cut a smaller pile. Should we reward and punish you because you are using a better or a worse tool?
If we reward output, it turns out we are rewarding a lot of different variables. We are rewarding the genetic endowments, the skills, the size, and the talents we are born with. We are rewarding the equipment we use. We are also rewarding people that happen to be producing something that has greater value. All of these variables are morally and economically mistaken, in my view, as bases for income. I suspect you have already seen the moral mistake. But what about the economic mistake?
An economist will say: “Part of the reason we remunerate is providing incentive.” If I give you a lot of money to play basketball like Michael Jordan, I am willing to offer you 20 million dollars, can you, yes, you in the second row, or anyone in this room, do it? No! Do the high wages have any effect on our genetic endowments? No! We can’t change our genetic endowments. If you offer me a lot of money, I can’t make myself bigger and stronger. There is no incentive effect on genetic endowment. In fact if I offer Michael Jordan 20 million dollars to play basketball, he might play for a year and retire because he has enough to live on for life. The reason he doesn’t is not financial, it has more to do with that he likes to play. So the incentive logic is missing; it doesn’t work. What you can elicit with incentives is more hours of work, harder work intensity, or willingness to work under worse conditions. And these are what we ought to remunerate people for, in my view, both for moral and incentive reasons. So I want to say that the third value for a worthy economy is equity, but what I mean by equity is that we are remunerated for the duration – how long we work - for the intensity –how hard we work – and for the onerousness of the conditions under which we work.
Before we move on, why would a mainstream economist say the idea of paying for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially useful labor is a bad idea? Think about doctors. A doctor in the
Let’s take two of you, over there in the fourth row to the left. Suppose you are just getting out of high school. You, the gal, are going to become a doctor. You, the guy, are going to become let’s say, a coal miner. As a doctor, you are going to earn 400,000 dollars. And let’s say you are going to earn 60,000 dollars when you become a coal miner. The reason we are going to give you 400,000 dollars a year, the brilliant economist tells us, is because during the years he is laboring in the coal mine, you are going to be in the medical school and then an intern in a hospital, and only after all that a full doctor. So you go to the college, and then to the medical school, and you are an intern and then you finally earn 400,000 dollars a year for the next 35 years. The guy goes out of the school straight to the coal mine, thus avoiding the horrible fate – are you already getting the picture - of being an intern or a student in the graduate school and instead earning 60,000 dollars a year.
So let’s test this analysis, instead of simply accepting it. I am going to start lowering the doctor’s salary. You, the gal header for med school, tell me when you decide to go to straight to the coal mine instead of medical school because I am not paying you enough to become a doctor not paying you enough to endure the tremendous suffering of medical school instead of being in the coal mine. How about if I lower it to 300,000 dollars? You won’t switch? Okay, what about 200,000 dollars? 100,000 dollars? 50,000 dollars? In the
This is very instructive. However amusing, it actually isn’t just a game. It reveals important truths. There is, right in front of our face, the gigantic lie in modern economic thought, and we even don’t think about it. Indeed, we accept it without questioning. Why does the doctor earn 400,000 dollars a year? It is not to pay you for the tremendous onerousness and horrors of going to graduate school. That is utter nonsense. So why do you earn it? It is simply because you have the power to take it. And what gives you that power? What makes it possible for you to take all this payment is your keeping down the supply of doctors. The American Medical Association is an institution of doctors in the
Just to finish this out – who is the greatest enemy of doctors in the society? That’s right, nurses! Because nurses could do a lot of doctors’ work. So doctors need to keep a monopoly of the knowledge and skills associated with medicine to keep their bargaining power high. The criticism raised by an economist that “remunerating effort and sacrifice – duration, intensity, and ownerousness of socially valued labor - is a bad idea because we will have no doctors” is just false.
So, continuing along with our effort, we now have solidarity, diversity, and equity as our values, where equity means remunerating for effort and sacrifice, duration, intensity and onerousness of work.
What’s next. Well, economy affects how much say we have, how much influence we have, over what is produced, how much, by what means, etc. What is our leftist value for that? Democracy? I agree that that would be a step forward, but I have a slightly different answer.
Suppose this is a workplace and you all, plus me, are the workforce. We each work in a little area of the workplace. You there, way in the back – yes, you - you also have a little area, and suppose you want to put up a picture of your wife, or you children in your little area. Who should make the decision? You should, by yourself, you say. But what about that guy over there. He should have no say, you say. So you should make this decision all by yourself? Alone? Like Stalin? And actually, it turns out the answer is yes and we all know it. That decision is a private matter.
It doesn’t make any sense for us to say that all the workers in this workplace should meet and decide if somebody can put up a picture of a spouse or child in her work area. It is obvious, that this should be a unilateral decision. We all get it. Suppose instead, somebody wanted to bring a boom box, and wanted to play heavy metal music. Now the question is: Who should make the decision? Everybody, you say? Well, what about the guy next door who can’t hear it? So, now you say everybody who is affected by it. Okay, I agree. And what we discover, quickly, by this little thought exercise is a norm that I call self-management. We should all have a say in decisions proportional to the degree we are affected by these decisions.
This means that sometimes only one person should decide, because he or she is overwhelmingly the only one affected. Sometimes we should use democracy - one person one vote, majority rules - because that’s the way we can allot to everyone as closely as possible the appropriate amount of influence. Sometimes we ought to use consensus, because for some kinds of decision requiring consensus most closely conveys to each actor the appropriate self-management influence. So that’s the fourth value I want to propose: self management.
Okay, again, before going on, what’s the critic going to say is wrong about this value? Nobody would say it’s morally wrong, I think. Instead, the typical response is: “It sounds nice, but what if we get stupid decisions? We need experts to make decisions.” And my response to that is: “Yes, there is a sense in which I agree with that.” But who is the foremost expert in the entire world in your preferences? Yes, correct, you are! In the
So this is what I want to claim about all these values that we so quickly – relatively speaking – arrived at. If we are trying to design or describe an alternative economic vision, then we should conceive a set of institutions which can produce and distribute stuff, and in the process of doing that can increase solidarity rather than diminish it, increase diversity rather than diminish it, create equity rather than obliterate it, and provide everybody a self-managing say rather than a few people dominance and most people subordination.
Now, let’s have a break, and in ten minutes, we will develop, somewhat quickly, an economic vision called participatory economics to replace capitalism, using this advisory – to find institutions that accomplish what we desire – and I will talk a little about implications of that f process for, first the vision problem - that’s easy and obvious - and then the much more interesting stickiness problem: Why do movements loose members?
So what we have now is: We know we don’t like capitalism, because it impoverishes us, it oppresses us, it denies us control, and on and on and on. And we started to develop an alternative economy to take the place of capitalism. We discovered some values that, for the purposes of exploring the idea of an alternative, make sense to us: solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management. And now we are trying to figure out an economic system that can actually deliver on these values.
Suppose this room we are in was a workplace. Suppose we all work here and we produce bicycles. And suppose we all decide to create an exemplary workplace which embodies the values and practices that we hope to have in a new economy. This is no mere hypothetical exercise. It happens often. In
When they took over factories, they, like us in this example, immediately created workers’ councils, and immediately made them much more democratic, though not quite going as far as what I mean when I say self-management. This idea of having a workers council is not very controversial on the left. Anybody who is anti-capitalist, as all historical experiences have shown, has created workers’ councils.
Okay, so we have ours, and now we look around in our workplace, and we decide that we want equity. We are going to remunerate for how long each of us works, how hard we work, and the onerousness of our work. So now we start to have meetings, and we start to have discussions, and we do work, and so on. But we keep the old division of labour. So, with that still in place, still about 20% of us have the managerial, engineering, personnel, conceptual, and otherwise empowering jobs. And about 80% of us are still doing the rote, repetitive, and disempowering work. And I say we have this ratio because on average this is about what we have in any industrialised society. On the one hand, 20% have jobs that include an array of empowering activities, which means activities that give them social skills, confidence, knowledge about what is going on , and access to daily decision making. On the other hand, 80% have jobs that are composed only of rote and repetitive tasks which don’t convey those empowering attributes.
So, okay, imagine that we all come together in a workers council meeting, to make decisions. Who sets the agenda of the meeting? We are having a discussion and a debate. Who has the confidence, information, and the verbal skills to be involved in this debate? Yes, correct, the 20% set the agenda and do the debating. Sure. And the rest of us, the 80%, are essentially bystanders. We choosing among the leaders who to follow.
And who is earning more? Well, first, at the outset who is going to be earning more? What were we committed to? We just started this workplace, we have our values, and so we are remunerating for effort and sacrifice, for duration, intensity, and onerousness. But that means at the outset who is earning more? You in the 80% would be earning more, because your work conditions are worse! The 20% empowered few are working in the air-conditioned offices, and you are working in front of the blast furnace. They work with their feet up on the desk, you work standing all day. They take a three-hour lunch break, you work overtime. If we remunerate for duration, intensity and onerousness, you, the 80%, get more.
Typically, in factories taken over by workers, they don’t go quite that far. But they do start up by equalizing wages. So you can take it in either way if you prefer; either you in the 80% are enjoying equalized wages and you are earning the same, or you are actually earning more due to the new norm that we favor. But in the firm’s decision making meeting the 20% do all the talking. They set the agenda. They do the debating. And it is their will that determines outcomes. And you, the 80%, are bored and exhausted from your work. So after the excitement of the early days of the new workplace structure wears off, you start to stay home during the meetings. And after a while, the 20% are doing all the talking, all the agenda setting, all the debating, and the 80% is not even attending the meetings. What do the 20% decide then? What is the first thing they decide when things have got to that stage? Yes, that is right, I think. They raise their own wages. And when the 20% raise their own wages, do they say to themselves: “Because we now have the power, and they, stupid them, aren’t coming to the meetings, we will rip them off.” And if you don’t say that to yourself, what do you say to yourself, which you certainly don’t, what do you tell yourself? Why are you paying yourself more? Yes, that is right. You feel like you are more important. You are smarter; you are more creative; you are crucial. That’s what the 20% tell themselves.
How do the 20% view you, the 80%? As ignorant, as just children. They say they must paternalistically make decisions on your behalf. You are, to them, stupid. That’s what they tell themselves. So they feel OK about themselves when they raise their salary. If you want to know the whole truth, they even go further. The 20% at some level think that they are doing you the 80% a favour. Because your taste has become so impoverished and limited, they decide you wouldn’t know what to do with all that money. It will just make you tense if you have it and must decide what to do with it. Whereas when they take the money, they know how to spend it on good food, art, and everything else. So they think they are doing you a favour.
So now we have a problem in our exemplary workplace. With the old division of labour still in place, despite that we are all absolutely committed to self-management, and despite the fact that we are all committed to equity, the old division of labour subverts our efforts. Slowly but surely, it forces our workplace to be class divided. And the class division is not owners above workers. There is no owner. Instead, those newly at the top don’t have a monopoly over property; they don’t own the bicycle factory. They have a monopoly on certain knowledge and skills, and especially on the empowering work that conveys their knowledge and skills.
If I could, I would like to take the time to tell two stories that bear on this division of labor problem, before we to find a solution.
I went to a glass factory not so long ago in
I talked to this woman who became financial officer, and I asked: “What was the hardest thing to learn in the transition from working in the glass foundry in 110 degrees heat all day long, to now doing the financial officer’s job? Was the hardest thing to learn the computer software?” She said: “No, not particularly.” “Was the hardest thing to learn the accounting concepts, the idea of tracking all this stuff and keeping these records, was that the hardest thing?” She said: “No, that wasn’t the hardest thing.” Can anybody here guess what the hardest thing was? No, well, okay, I didn’t either, but then she said to me: “Learning to read was the hardest thing.”
Just think about that for a minute. She is working in the glass foundry; she is now the chief financial officer six months after the workers took over, and to make this jump not only did she learn the software and accounting, but she learned to read! The idea that people can’t do empowering work is just a big lie.
Now here’s a different story. Again I was in
What was going happening is that despite making some wonderful changes and having great values, these workers kept the old division of labour. The woman I spoke of earlier, as one example, moved from blast foundry to financial officer. But she was still financial officer. What we described earlier hypothetically in our heads for our own workplace was that unless we solved the division of labor problem, 20% would dominate due to having a monopoly over the empowering tasks and thus the knowledge, information, social talents and confidence that convey power, and that was exactly what was happening in these firms. The old division of labour was kept in place and it was subverting the equitable remuneration and the democracy the workers had adopted. So what is the solution?
No one wants to hazard a guess, even? Once somebody I know came up to me and said: “Everything in your parecon seems so simple. It sounds simple when you talk about it, but it is not that simple.” Well, it is true, working out all the details, going further than we are, is a little harder. But for the most part, the essence of it really is simple, for someone open to it. Most economists, political scientists, or philosophers will have a hard time understanding a word of what I am saying, but that isn’t because it is hard. Rather it is because their educations prevent them from even hearing the words offered. But I do try to make it clear and familiar. So now I am going to give an example to make the solution to the division of labor problem, which may sound weird at first.
Suppose we are on a field trip to a country which we have never visited before and even never heard of. We quickly realize that in the workplaces we are visiting there are no owners, the workplaces are all social. But when we look inside these workplaces, we see that even without owners, they are just like the workplaces we are familiar with. There is top-down decision making. There are big divisions of income. We look more closely and after a bit we see 20% of the employees have better circumstances, more power, more income, and 80% have less of all that. So we look more closely and we discover the 20% dominate all the decision making. And then we see something more, something peculiar. Before the workday begins, every day the 20% each eat two chocolate bars. The 80% get no chocolates. We investigate these particular chocolates, and it turns out that oddly enough these chocolates convey to the people who eat them great confidence, social skills, capacity to do intellectual work, empowerment, and so on. If I now ask you then what do we have to do in this workplace to get rid of the hierarchy in which 20% dominate 80%, what is the answer? Not very complicated: you are correct, chocolates for everybody! We either get some more chocolates, or, if we have all we can get, there has to be less chocolate given out, but for everybody.
Now let’s come back to the case of the worker controlled
So participatory economics says: “We should have a new division of labor” which means in our bicycle factory that we have taken over, in addition to the workers councils, in addition to the self management decision making, in addition to the equitable remuneration for duration, intensity and onerousness of socially valuable work, we need to institute what is called “balanced job complexes”. This means each person should have a mix of tasks and responsibilities, but instead of combining only the empowering tasks and giving that to the 20%, and only the disempowering tasks and giving that to the 80%, we have each person’s job be a combination that is comparably empowering to everyone else’s. In other words, we create a situation in which the elite 20% no longer exists because no group does only empowering tasks. There is nobody in the workplace who by virtue of their daily activity is elevated above everybody else.
Suppose you are a surgeon in a capitalist economy. We switch to a participatory economy. Do you still do some surgery? Yes, right, of course you do. But what else do you do? Yes, right, you clean the bedpans, you sweep, or you work in the cafeteria. You do a mix of tasks. And your mix is comparably empowering as everyone else’s mix.
Okay, what’s the problem with this? What would a mainstream economist say is wrong with this?
They would say: “This would be inefficient.” Why? They would say: “Look, he has got all these surgical skills, and he is not using all of them if he is cleaning the floors! Giving somebody a heart transplant in the five ours that it takes to do so is more efficient than cleaning bedpans in these five hours.” Yes, you are right, that is what the economist says, and he is right, it is true, up to a point. The critic will say: “It sounds good the way you describe it, fair and just, but what good is that, given that we will all die! We will have a classless economy, but we won’t enjoy it because we will be dead!”
So what is the answer? More surgeons? Right, more people doing surgery so the total they do is as much, or in fact quite a bit more, than the surgery that was being done before. But where do the surgeons come from? Where do we get more surgeons from? Medical school? Yes, but we have already got all the surgeons who were graduating before, and we just cut their work, and now they are doing surgery only, let’s say, half as many hours a week as before, so we now need to add the same number of surgeons again. Where do we get them from? Okay, yes, that is right, we get them from the 80%. And if you think the 80% can’t generate that kind of surgical talent and likewise for all the other empowering jobs, then you are racist, sexist and classist. And we can literally prove that.
Suppose we were having this discussion forty years ago in the
So let’s talk about the current time, again. If we switch from a capitalist economy to a participatory economy, the surgeons under the parecon will have a balanced job complex. They will do, let’s say, half as much surgery, actually less, because we are going to shorten the work day as well, as before. So, we have to get more people doing surgery from somewhere else. We get it from the 80% working class. It’s not that every person from the 80% could be a surgeon. Just like not every women forty years ago could have been a surgeon even if they had good training, etc. But the overall pool of people has more than enough surgical capacity to replace the surgery that we have lost, and likewise for other empowered tasks. So we get the surgery we need but without retaining the old division of labour. In fact we get much better surgery for a diverse array of reasons that we don’t have the time to explore now.
So now let’s assume our workplace has done all these changes. The
Suppose we have a bicycle factory. We change it to be pareconish and it has all these new features, but suppose we are still operating in a market system. If so, what do we have to do? What does the market require of us? Somebody says profit. But that is not quite right. We don’t have an owner, there is no profit on property. We do have to compete. Correct. But compete for what? We have to compete for market share. Right.
We produce bicycles. If we don’t compete for market share, what’s going to happen to our workplace? Correct, we are going to go out of business. In that case we would have a perfect workplace but no work. We would fail and go out of business. So we must compete. We formed our workers’ assembly, and we decided in our workplace we want to have day-care. In our workplace we want cleanliness and we want air conditioning. We want nice lunch breaks. We don’t want speed up. We don’t want to work at a ridiculously inhumane pace. If we make a mess outside the plant, if we make pollution, we would like to clean it up, because we are responsible and we also live in a neighbourhood. But now, having decided to do all that, still, because of the market we have to compete, and in order to compete what do we have to do?
We have to cut costs. Correct. But why do we have to cut costs? To keep market share. Correct, but how? We have to generate a surplus. Yes, you are right, but why? What do we have to do with the surplus? What do we need it for?
Well, we have to spend it on advertising, in order to compete. We have to spend it on innovations too. So we need it, where do we get it. How do we have bigger surpluses than others in our industry?
The other firms aren’t cleaning up their pollution. If a dirty technology is cheaper than the clean one, they will use the dirty one. They turn off the air-conditioning for the workers. They impose speed up. They sell bicycles cheaper and cheaper, at least to the consumer, and they are making a surplus and they are out-advertising us. We are losing market share and we are losing our jobs. We have to do something, quick.
For those interested, I am broadly describing
Returning to our own factory, right here, are we going to be good at making those decisions? This is the first somewhat subtle point of the evening. I think we are not going to be good in making these decisions, because they are going to hurt us. It’s hard to oppress ourselves. Suppose we want to find somebody else to make these decisions. Where will we look to find this person who is exceptionally well trained to make these decisions: a person who has learned not only how to do this, but also to feel no hesitation to make decisions that hurt other people? Where do we find this beast?
What we are talking about now is the market system and how it subverts the logic of our just workplace. Against our values, against our desires, the fact that we retain markets subverts our efforts and pushes us back into having a class above most workers. As with the old corporate division of labor, markets also impose on us a coordinator class/working class division. Central planning does the same thing, and it’s more obvious. The central planners are the coordinator class, and have no interest in negotiating with a self-managing workers’ council. So instead they interact with people just like themselves in the workplace, people that have a monopoly on empowering work and related education, so on, so forth.
Somebody earlier said that education was the thing that distinguishes the coordinator class from the working class. And I just want to address that for a minute. It’s true that education is a credential, an entry fee to the coordinator class. In a capitalist economy it is essential that the educational system produces such people in the society. That means that the educational system has to prepare 80% of the population to be wage slaves. Remember being in high school and the end of the day is coming, and you are looking up and watching the clock, and it is moving so slowly, and you are praying for the end of the day to come. If you don’t remember that ever happening, then you were channeled into the 20%. But if you were being channeled into the 80%, you will remember that experience. But I bet you didn’t just get up and walk out. You sat there and endured boredom and obeyed orders. And that is what the school system is for, for the 80% of the population: to teach us to endure boredom and take orders. If it didn’t do that, it would be dysfunctional under capitalism.
After the 1960s in the
In a participatory economy education is exactly the opposite. Everybody winds up with a balanced job complex. It is desirable for the society, therefore, that we all fulfil our capabilities as fully as possible. Maximum development of our capacities is actually needed for us to become good citizens in this type of society.
Just as a sidebar: The US did successfully changed the education as a result of this recognition. In fact, they did it so successfully that if you look at the
So, getting back on track, participatory economy is workers’ councils and also consumers’ councils - I haven’t talked much about the latter, though it is crucial for really understanding the whole system - self-managed decision making, balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration for duration, intensity and onerousness of socially valuable work, and now, finally, we also need a new allocation system that can replace markets and central planning.
I am not going to describe the allocation system at length because it is getting late and you are too tired and it will take a while. But I am going to make a remarkable claim about what is called participatory planning, the new allocation system for a parecon. I claim that participatory planning which is the last core institutional feature of the participatory economy, in place of markets or central planning, can properly valuate the goods in the economy including what are called externalities, or ecological effects; does not subvert the features of our workplace, but instead facilitates and advances exactly these features we have said we want; and also delivers to each worker and consumer an appropriate level of self managing influence over economic decisions. Now that is a massive and somehow implausible claim. But what we should be able to agree on is that if it is true, and I claim it is, then the combination of participatory planning and the other institutions that we talked about, constitute an economy, a participatory economy, which produces solidarity, equity, diversity and self-management, and which is classless. And if that is true, then we have an alternative to capitalism, and to the thing that is historically called Socialism, as well. No more TINA.
At this point, there is no reason for you to believe my claim. At most you might think it is starting to sound plausible. To go further, you would have to investigate it and think about it more, and decide what you think. But if you decided it was true, then you become a pareconist, an advocate of participatory economy. If you decided it was wrong, it was flawed then I honestly think what you should do is to start over again, and come up with something better, because we need a vision to get to any place.
What about if we have the questions now and deal a bit more with the stickiness problem later, after the questions? Or maybe it will come up in the course of questions, OK?
Q: Can you compare participatory Socialism and participatory economics?
The question is: What is the difference between what you are describing, participatory economics, and the thing that is called Socialism? Well, if somebody wants to label what I am describing as “participatory Socialism”, fine, you could do that. The word Socialism has two alternative ways of approaching it: The thing we all like, those of us who identify ourselves as socialist, is the values that are associated with the word: Equity, solidarity, people controlling their lives, self-management, justice, and so on. So if you mean by Socialism that, then participatory economics is what you mean by Socialism. So to give an example from the world outside, when Hugo Chavez says he is for 21st century Socialism, what is he saying? What he is saying is not very clear because he doesn’t offer much explanation, but I suspect what he is saying is: “We don’t like the institutions that went under the label ‘Socialism’ no matter when or where, before. But we do like the socialist values. So we want something new which embodies these values. If he was here I would ask him: “Please, and does parecon fit what you are looking for?”
But what about the other meaning of the word Socialism? The other meaning is institutional. The word conveys a certain set of institutions that have been historically identified as Socialism. Those institutions are: First, getting rid of the private ownership of the means of production, getting rid of capitalists. I share this aim. Second however, Socialism has always included the old corporate division of labour. We discovered, however, that the old division of labour subverts our values. So we can’t support that feature. Socialism has historically also meant remuneration partly by bargaining power and partly by how much you contribute, but we rejected that too. Socialism institutionally and historically meant central planning or markets, and we rejected that, as well. So we rejected the institutional model called socialism, and I think a lot of socialists do too, but a lot of people are confused about that. And I like to be very clear and explicit.
So to get even more explicit and clear about this, let’s go a step further. For those of you who are Marxist, Marx teaches if somebody says something about values, we should look beyond their words to their practice. If Bill Clinton stood before you and made a speech, he would say he is for freedom; he is for justice, he is for equitable distribution of wealth; and lots of other values, and he would say it all very well, convincingly and emotionally. A Marxist in the audience should say: “Wait a minute; I shouldn’t take this at its face value. I should look behind the rhetoric, to the practice.” And when we do that, we discover that Bill Clinton supports institutions, such as private ownership, corporations, etc. that are contrary to the values that he claims to advocate. So we no longer accept the rhetoric of Bill Clinton. We say, “No! We know that you are not in favour of these values! We know you are not!”
You see the analogy coming. An eloquent Marxist gets up and says: “I am for equity; I am for sharing; I am for self management; I am for justice”. If we are good Marxists, when we hear that we should say: “Wait a minute, I am going to look behind the rhetoric, at the practice.” If we want to behave as a good Marxist, at least in this respect, we have to have class in our mind. So what do we do?
Suppose we look at every book or pamphlet that has ever been written by a Marxist-Leninist that has Socialism in it. We look at every case that a Marxist-Leninist movement has taken power in a country and introduced a new economy. In every case, book or practice, we discover that the new system elevated a new ruling class. In every case it was not socialism as we mean the term with the good values; it was coordinatorism, an economy that elevates 20% to ruling status. In the
Q: Is the participatory economy about just a vision of a society that we may or may not reach in the future? What does a pareconist mean? Is it about just the dissemination of the vision only? What are the implications of the participatory economy for social movements, for what we should do and how we should do it?
Of course the whole story is not just talking about the vision; it’s also fighting for it. Talking about the vision is important, yes. Spreading the idea, so to develop a large number of people who share it, and therefore will work together in a way that is consistent with it. We don’t want to wind up at coordinatorism. We don’t want to windup at the old system. So we are going to make a revolution to go from capitalism to participatory economy and also from patriarchy and sexism to feminism and from racism to what I call intercommunalism, and from political authoritarianism to what we might call participatory politics. But what does it mean to seek gains differently?
The first thing that it means is that we should construct movements that embody our values and our vision now. If we have movements that internally have the same division of labour as we find in capitalism, movements with institutions that have the same division of labour, then working people will not trust the movement because the movement will be about coordinator rule, not working class liberation. So, one clear implication is that our movements should have balanced job complexes and self management. There is another more subtle implication. You individually, or the movement can be anti-capitalist, can be sincerely anti-capitalist, but not be for classlessness. Instead you can be against capitalism but for elevating the coordinator class. So the movement’s strategy, policies, and structure could be leading to coordinatorism, as Leninism or Bolshevism did. But that leads us further into a more important point I think. And this also takes us back to the stickiness problem, brought up earlier.
If you go back and look at 1967/1968, women and blacks were saying to the movements in the
Now comes the analogy. If somebody comes along and says: “We should learn from corporations how to be more efficient.” For me that’s just as horrifying. But not only do people on the left say that, in fact movements repeatedly incorporate corporate attributes in their structures. Our movements have internal divisions of labour that are like the corporate division of labour, and we often have decision making like they do, too. We often have dues structures that are less progressive than the
So this is another big implication: Our movements have to be congenial to, supportive of, and empowering to working people as compared to just the sons and daughters of the coordinator class. This is a profoundly important point. If our movement’ culture, its decision making, and its distribution of tasks are corporate and thus classist, then our movement will be alienating to working people. And we will see what we see: Too few working people and too much likelihood that they are going to leave. But it is not because they are not committed that they tend to leave. It’s because our movements are so flawed. I don’t know much about
Here a pattern emerges. I would give many more examples, if we had more time, but the point is, what workers do and like is often disparaged by movements. In contrast, what the coordinator class does is often celebrated and emulated by movements. And we wonder why our movement is relatively unattractive to working people.
I don’t know whether you have this image in
Somebody always says “well, why don’t they go play ball and read instead of watching it?” Well the answer to that in the
You laugh, but people really feel just that. And I say “OK, what happens if the worker does read Chomsky on a Sunday afternoon, on Monday?” It doesn’t take a genius to think these things through. If you want to know why people do or don’t do something, just ask yourself Okay, what would have happened if you didn’t, or did, do it. So, the working person in the
Leftist typically all too often see things so that everybody other than them looks like an idiot. We act as though the reason people - read workers – buy stuff is because they are tricked into it by the ads. But that’s not why people buy stuff. People buy stuff to get a degree of fulfillment in the shitty context we all have to endure. The dirty, nasty truth is much worse than that we are tricked. When a corporation advertises clothing or cars or food, how do they do it? What do they appeal to? What needs do they say they are going to fulfill by their images? Come on, what do they try to appeal to? How do they try and sell it? Status is one thing, yes, what else? Power, happiness…yes. Come on. Sex, indeed, that’s right. And they suggest that the item will also convey some kind of dignity. Is the audience tricked? Careful. No, the audience in fact is not tricked. Why? Because the advertisement’s claims are largely true. That is the sad reality. We live in a world that is so constrained in its options that it is true that if you go and buy new clothes, you have the possibility of encountering somebody and having sex. It is true that you have to get new clothes, or a car to have dignity and status. It is true that you have to buy this stuff as very nearly the only avenue to a degree of fulfillment.
Imagine a working person, having a nice chunk of cash, who goes and buys a nice shirt in hopes of meeting somebody and impressing them. On the other hand, imagine a radical who buys a copy of Negri’s “Empire” in hopes of being considered smart and having status and then, yes, having sex. That’s surely why people buy this book, isn’t it. Because virtually nobody can understand it. People act like they understand it, but don’t. So, respect the working person’s decision, a sensible one, given the constraints and options available. Not the radical decision, the idiotic one, even in the given context.
There are tons of examples like this. Let me just give you one more that is, I think, pretty thought provoking. Remember I described the Afghan war and leading up to it the acknowledged possibility of bombing killing five to seven million people. If you could have been a little bug on the wall in the Pentagon when they were planning to bomb
Was there ever a No Nukes movement in
The no nukes movement said shut down the nuclear power plants. If you shut down the nuclear power plants what do you have more of? Well, you might want more wind power, you might want more solar power, you might want more power from the tides. What did we actually have in 1985? Coal. And where did coal come from? Coal mines. And who does the work? Workers! And what do they get as payback for the work they do? Black Lung disease! And the movement didn’t ask: “What are the implications of our policy choice, of our demands to shut down nuclear power for working people?” Just like Bush didn’t examine what the implications of bombing
So what we need is a movement that is congenial to, pleasant to, and empowering to working people. Just like it has to be all those things to women, to blacks in the
When we have a movement that desires a participatory society, a society that has a participatory economy and that also has participatory kinship, feminism, participatory culture, communalism, and a participatory political system, when we have a movement that has a shared agreement about what it is for, the vision, then we will have a movement which can have coherent strategy based on that vision. Then we will make progress, rapid progress.