Parecon and Dissent
This essays is excerpted from the Zed Press book, Realizing Hope.
There is no end to history. There is no end to dissent. A parecon has, I believe, highly desirable features. For a new economy to eliminate unjust income differentials, produce solidarity rather than anti-sociality, diversify rather than homogenize social outcomes, engender self management rather than authoritarianism, and attain classlessness rather than class rule - will be major advances for humanity, but not the last advances humanity achieves.
Within a society with a parecon there will be frequent issues and situations which call forth dissent. Even more, there will sometimes be dissent directed not only at a specific policy or an enduring habit, but at underlying institutional features.
It is not that there will arise desires to return to capitalism. That would seem very unlikely. As for a character in Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed, we can expect a citizen enjoying parecon hearing a description of capitalism would be horrified. It would “bore him past endurance.” It would be “like listening to somebody interminably recounting a long and stupid dream.” The parecon citizen, after years of involvement with parecon’s logic, would not be able to even “force himself to understand how banks functioned and so forth, because all the operations of capitalism” would appear to him “as meaningless…as the rites of a primitive religion, as barbaric, as elaborate, and as unnecessary.” Such a future pareconish person would, if asked to consider a possible return to capitalism, wonder at how anyone could ever have engaged “in the rites of the money-changers, where greed, laziness, and envy were assumed to move all men's acts” and where “even the terrible became banal.”
So, while following Le Guin’s lead I think dissent in a parecon will be unlikely to look backward, I think that looking forward there could arise movements to make levels of fulfillment, pleasure, and dignity of all people equal, beyond parecon’s making the material conditions and social relations that contribute to these desirable states equal. Or maybe a new aim will be removing the whole idea of measure regarding human traits or rewards, or even the whole idea of warranting rewards at all. Here is one of LeGuin’s characters, again: “Do not speak of what men deserve. For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead Kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free your mind of the idea of deserving, of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.” Whether this viewpoint Le Guin relates will make sense and rise to prominence beyond parecon’s logic, or whether some other new set of aspirations will arise, we can’t know. In any event, whatever types of dissent do arise, what should be society’s reaction to them?
First, there is a place in human life for caution, perhaps more so than many radicals and revolutionaries would care to admit. Longstanding gains, hard won outcomes, and social habits and relations honed over decades, centuries, and even eons, can certainly have virtues that transcend first appearances, just as innovations can have debits that go unnoticed in moments of excited advocacy. For both reasons, it is often wise to be cautious in seeking major change. But, while a cautionary attitude has merit in that it helps us to avoid carelessly losing hard-won gains or imposing horrible flaws, an attitude that denies any justification for moving forward and that claims we should never be more than we are, goes too far.
We should always realize that there is no final resting place for progress. A degree of caution about rejecting past achievements makes sense, yes, but there will always be moments in history when innovation makes even more sense. In other words, simultaneous with our caution, it also behooves us to always be open to, and even to welcome possibilities for change.
Even more, we know that changes come, almost always on the heels of critique. It is when some individual or some group makes a compelling case that inadequacies exist and when other people then begin to devise alternatives and agitate for innovations, that serious changes occur.
Criticism and seeking innovation are the lifeblood of major gains for humanity. Shouldn’t humanity therefore welcome dissent and not repress it?
Using an economic analogy: think of an investment. We get some inkling of an idea that something could be beneficial. We think it through a bit and get excited about the prospects. We give time, energy, and insight to attaining it.
Of course, not every such effort pans out. Some investments tell us what doesn’t work, but give us nothing new. Others barely even manage that much. Nonetheless, we don’t say that we shouldn’t support investments at all on the grounds that not all investments succeed. Instead we cautiously gamble because we know that enough investments work to greatly make up for those that fail.
Similarly, consider the composer, writer, painter, or scientist. Each will often embark on a path in their own particular discipline that seems promising but later fails. Are they being a bad composer, writer, painter, or scientist when they undertake a project which doesn’t pan out as they hoped?
No, successes won’t come without failures. We don’t know outcomes before the fact. We can try to avoid frivolous boondoggles, though we should do it cautiously since it may be us and not the composer, writer, painter, or scientist who we reject as frivolous who is ignorant, but for the most part, where there is a reasonable level of competency and reasonable seriousness, pursuing new ideas makes sense.
The same goes for dissent. Perhaps a good society should on occasion ignore, dismiss, or even obstruct what seems without doubt to be frivolous or ignorant dissent, though there should be a considerable burden of proof on doing so. But in serious, informed cases, society ought to not just abide even dissent against its own structures, but should encourage it.
Indeed, a case could even be made that we will only have a civilized society when it is able to welcome and even promote dissent against itself.
If this is a mark of a good society, how will a parecon fare? A parecon has diversity as a central value and it is hopefully a natural extension from favoring diversity within a system to diversity regarding a system.
Likewise, a parecon equips all its participants with confidence and knowledge in accord with their inclinations, laying the basis for critical thought.
Moreover, a parecon supports economic initiative and innovation whenever these show sensible promise of meeting needs and developing potentials - so why not support with the same vigor dissent that has the potential to produce institutional innovations that would benefit people?
There is no reason, one hopes, for any advocate of a parecon to feel an insecure fear about his or her economy that would lead him or her to defend pareconish values or institutions from critique to the point of reflexively rejecting prospects for innovation.
Why should even a sensibly cautious pareconist oppose exploring the possibility of structural alterations that would further benefit humanity?
In a parecon, economic costs and benefits are equitably distributed. Any proposal for innovation that violates the fairness of the system by giving advantages to some people at the expense of others will presumably meet stiff resistance, at the very least from those who would be disadvantaged. But why would any proposal that makes a compelling case it might benefit everyone, meet reflexive dismissal or opposition? People might doubt a critical idea’s possibility, of course. But the answer is not to a priori reject the idea, but to test it and explore its potential.
A parecon should by its logic and its values, accommodate to and even propel the idea of society continually subsidizing experiments in its own renovation and redefinition. A society that includes a parecon and a compatible and comparably worthy political, kinship, cultural, and environmental orientation will be, on this score too, a civilized rather than a pre-civilized system.
What about now? What about before we win a new economy and a new world? What about dissent from the parecon vision while it is barely even being born?
For the economy, I want workers and consumers to have control over their own economic lives.
I want everyone to have fair conditions that fully utilize their talents and potentials.
I want incomes that correspond to the duration, intensity, and onerousnesss of the work people do.
I want what is produced, by whom, under what conditions, and with who consuming the product, all geared toward enhancing human well-being and development and decided by the people involved.
I want an end to hierarchies of power and wealth and an end to class division where most people are subordinated to an elite few.
To accomplish all these economic ends I favor the institutions of participatory economics - worker and consumer councils, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning.
I believe, after years of evaluation and considerable experimental implementation that these choices are worthy and viable, which is why I advocate them. But if someone should argue that parecon’s institutions would somehow fail to accomplish necessary economic functions or would have social or personal by-products that would outweigh their benefits, then I and other advocates must listen to those claims, hear and comprehend them, and address them. We should hope that we could refine the parecon vision and improve its qualities.
And if someone should find flaws that resist correction and preclude improvement of the vision, I and other advocates should simply return to the drawing board. We should never give up on developing a viable vision, but should always be open to improving or even replacing any vision we advocate.
Exploitation, alienation, poverty, disempowerment, fragmented and debilitating labor, production for the profit of a few - much less homelessness, starvation, and degradation - are not like gravity. These ills arise from institutional relations established by human beings. New institutions, also established by human beings, can generate vastly superior outcomes that liberate our talents and spirits, entwine our desires and cares, multiply our options, equilibrate our costs and benefits, and deliver the kind of worthy freedom that extends to you and I the same as it extends to him and her.
Defining and working to attain those new institutions ought to be our economic agenda. Defining and working to win a new world ought to be our social agenda.