Parecon and Polity
This essay is excerpted from the Zed Press published book, Realizing Hope
Current times make an argument that contemporary political structures are decrepit and redundant. Every day hammers home the realization. My own country, the
So, what do we want instead of current political systems and how will what we politically desire relate to a participatory economy?
To fully address the practical symbiosis between a desirable economy and a desirable polity one would ideally like to first compellingly describe a new political vision and then to examine its interactions with economics. Luckily for us, though positive political vision has not yet been spelled out as fully as participatory economics has, the U.S.-based activist and political scientist Stephen Shalom, among others, has at least begun the process in his preliminary presentation of Parpolity, available on the internet via the Participatory Society subsite of ZNet at http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/topics/parsoc
Parpolity is a political vision that seeks to further the same values as parecon. Since parpolity describes many characteristics a good political system would have, we can usefully take it as a touchstone in this essay.
The French anarchist Proudhon wrote, “To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated, regimented, closed in, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, evaluated, censored, commanded, all by creatures that have neither the right nor wisdom nor virtue... To be governed means that at every move, operation, or transaction, one is noted, registered, entered in a census, taxed, stamped, authorized, recommended, admonished, prevented, reformed, set right, corrected. Government means to be subject to tribute, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolized, extorted, pressured, mystified, robbed; all in the name of public utility and the general good. Then at first sign of resistance or word of complaint, one is repressed, fined, despised, vexed, pursued, hustled, beaten up, garroted, imprisoned, shot, machine gunned, judged, sentenced, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed, and to cap it all, ridiculed, mocked, outraged, and dishonored. That is Government. That is its justice and morality!
The problem that arises for serious people responding to this and many other inspiring anarchist formulations is that they do not specify how to transcend the regimentation typical of state and government. They don’t explain how each citizen and community can organizationally freely determine its own actions. How do we legislate shared norms, implement collective programs, and adjudicate disputes including dealing with violations of sociality? How do we prevent humans from being reduced to atomistic units clashing and jangling and instead compose a society where the actions of each person collectively benefit all other people?
The Need for Political Vision
One thug with a club can disrupt even the most humane gathering. Thugs with clubs, in all variants, whether aroused by liquor, jealousy, arrogance, greed, pathology, or some other antisocial attribute, won’t disappear from a good society.
Likewise, a dispute that has no means of resolution will often escalate even in the best of environments into a struggle that vastly transcends the scope of its causes, whether the escalating dispute occurs between the Hatfields and McCoys, northern and south states, rural and urban areas, France and Germany, or Pakistan and India.
What prevents social degradation from thugs? What prevents escalating disputes? More generally, if we lack agreed social norms, people will have to repeatedly start social projects from scratch. We won’t be able to benefit from a set of previously agreed responsibilities and practices. We will suffer endless negotiation curtailing desirable implementation.
In a good polity will we have known responsibilities we cannot violate, or will everything we do be up for grabs with each new day? In the former case, we might attain civilized existence. In the later case, we would only have chaos. To have social success, we need political structures.
Put differently, while it is true that even the most desirable mutually agreed roles and responsibilities will, to some degree, limit our range of options, desirable mutually agreed roles will also make the range of all options available to us vastly larger than were these roles absent. Having red and green lights at intersections constrains our driving options but it also keeps us alive. More generally, having diverse rules that we all abide, permits us each to operate far more effectively and diversely even as it also narrows our choices in some contexts. If they limit options agreeably, the coherence that institutional norms can bring more than out ways the limitations they impose.
If I violate my previously agreed upon roles and responsibilities, it likely throws into question and perhaps completely disrupts other people’s expectations, actions, and options. We don’t want freedom to kill. We don’t want freedom to drive through red lights. We want freedom that facilitates further freedom and the means to enjoy it. We want to escape needless restrictions, but we want to do this only consistent with others having the same freedoms we have while also preserving previously agreed role responsibilities.
So we need to establish institutions that let us accomplish political functions in accord with our values. The question for political vision is: what are those institutions?
Failed Political Visions
One failed answer comes from the perspective called Marxism Leninism. As history has verified, the "dictatorship of the proletariat" translates virtually seamlessly into the dictatorship of the party, the politburo, and in the worst case even the megalomaniacal dictator. That this trajectory could ever have been equated with a desirable form of political life will always be a horrible blemish on the political history of "the Left." Outlawing all but a single "vanguard" party ruled by "democratic centralism" subverts democracy.
Democratic centralism systematically impedes participatory impulses, promotes popular passivity, nurtures fear, and breeds authoritarianism, and does so even against the far better aspirations of many Leninists. To routinely outlawed external opposition and suppress or manipulate internal dissent by transferring members between branches does not engender democracy. However positive specific Leninists’ motivations may be, Leninist practice does not lead to better polity.
Western-style electoral "democracy" is another answer to the political vision question, and while it is arguably better then the Leninist one-party state and dictatorship, it is nonetheless a far cry from participatory democracy. Highly unequal distributions of wealth stack the deck before the political card game begins. Citizens choose from pre-selected candidates screened for compatibility by society's corporate elites. And even if removing private ownership of productive assets overcame money-related problems within a Western style democracy, participatory democracy requires more than infrequently voting for a representative to carry out political activity that is largely alienated from popular will and often contrary to popular interests.
While electing representatives is a plausible and perhaps even an essential part of a true participatory democracy, frequent and regular referenda on important political propositions and policies at every level of government accompanied by a full airing of competing views would presumably be at least an important addition to voting for candidates. The question arises, what mechanisms can permit and promote engagement, deliberation, and decision making that gives all citizens appropriate say, whether directly or through representatives, and that preserves essential rights while serving justice?
After admittedly very quickly rejecting Leninism and parliamentary democracy, the first important thing to realize is that political life will not disappear in a desirable society. The structure of political life will transform, yes, but its relevance to citizens will intensify rather than diminish.
Politics will no longer be privileged groups perpetuating their domination. Nor will oppressed constituencies battle an unjust status quo whether cynically or as an opposition. But having a desirable polity doesn’t mean having universal agreement about social choices. While the goal of social diversity dictates that competing ideas should be implemented whenever possible, many times one program will have to be implemented at the expense of others. The problem of public choice will therefore not disappear. Even more, since a desirable society will kindle our participatory impulses, in a good society debate will sometimes heat up rather than cool down.
Stephen Shalom outlines issues that will still inspire debate and dispute:
“Here are just a few issues that will continue to vex us: animal rights (should meat-eating be outlawed?), pornography (is it inherently oppressive to women or is an expression of individual autonomy?), prostitution (in a society without economic exploitation is it possible for someone to ‘choose’ to be a sexual worker?), deep ecology (to what extent should we treat the environment not just as something to be saved so that it can continue to sustain us in the future, but as something of value independent of all human benefit?), drug legalization, multilingualism, children's rights, allocation of expensive or scarce medical resources, like heart transplants, cloning, surrogate motherhood, euthanasia, single-sex schools, and religious freedom when the religions violate other important societal values, like gender equity.”
If that list doesn’t make the point, Shalom continues:
“On top of this, there are issues that are generally supported by the Left, but not universally so, and about which I can imagine continuing debates in a good society: for example, the extent to which we should recognize abortion rights or preferential policies for members of previously oppressed groups. And then there are issues that would arise from the fact that the whole world may not become ‘a good society’ all at once … how will we deal with questions of foreign policy, trade, or immigration?”
After which Shalom summarizes,
“In short, even in a society that had solved the problem of economic exploitation and eliminated hierarchies of race, class, and gender, many controversies--many deep controversies--would still remain. Hence, any good society will have to address issues of politics and will need some sort of political system, a polity.”
The broadest goals, if not the structural means of embodying a new polity, are already pretty well understood and enunciated. A truly democratic community insures that the general public has the opportunity for meaningful and constructive participation in the formation of social policy. A society that excludes large areas of crucial decision-making from public control, or a system of governance that merely grants the general public the opportunity to ratify decisions taken by the elite groups...hardly merits the term democracy. A central question is, however, what institutional vehicles will best afford and even guarantee the public truly democratic opportunities?
Ultimately, political controversies must be settled by tallying people’s preferences. Obviously voting will be better informed the greater access voters have to relevant information. One condition of real democracy, therefore, is that groups with competing opinions can effectively communicate their views. Democratization of political life must include democratization of the flow of information and commentary via a new media of the sort discussed in chapter ten of this book.
Participatory democracy requires not only democratic access to a transformed media and the possibility for people to form and utilize single-issue political organizations to make their views known, but also, at least in all likelihood, a pluralism of political parties with different social agendas. There is no reason to think, in other words, that having a good economy or society means that people won’t disagree about major matters in ideological ways. An absence of class difference doesn’t imply an absence of all difference.
If we reflect briefly on the history of political life within the left and on the consequences of attempting to ban parties, factions, or any form of political organization people desire to employ, it should be clear that bans are the stuff of repression and authoritarianism.
But can we offer more by way of political vision than these broad and very general intimations of possible features of a desirable polity? Well, we can at least reproduce some of Stephen Shalom’s thoughts about political vision, which seem to me instructive and valuable.
We might start with values, and, saving a lot of time, parecon’s economic values not only make good economic sense, but with a little tweaking make good political sense as well.
Surely a polity should produce solidarity not anti-sociality and should value and generate diversity rather than homogenizing outcomes. So these two economic values transfer easily into politics.
For the economy, equity addresses the distribution of rewards. For polity, the analogue of equity is justice which addresses the distribution of rights and responsibilities, including the need to redress violations of social agreements. So with this minor tweak, equity transfers as well, now called justice.
Self management is arguably even more a political value than an economic one, both in its origins and its logic, and is therefore certainly a worthy political aim. Politics should facilitate actors having influence on decisions in proportion as those decisions impact their lives.
So borrowing and adapting from parecon, for politics we have as guiding values solidarity, diversity, justice, and self management. Moreover, accomplishing these values implies accomplishing other more familiar political values including liberty, participation, and tolerance.
In Shalom’s conception of a desirable polity there are matters of legislation, adjudication, and collective implementation. For legislation, Shalom advocates “nested councils” where “the primary-level councils will include every adult in the society” and where Shalom suggests, “the number of members in these primary-level councils [might plausibly] be somewhere between 25-50.”
Thus everyone in society is in one of these basic political units. Some folks are elected to higher level councils as well, since in Shalom’s parpolity vision, “each primary-level council will choose a delegate to a second-level council” where “each second-level council [would again] be composed of 20-50 delegates.” And this would proceed again, for another layer, and another, “until there is one single top-level council for the entire society.” The delegates to each higher council “would be charged with trying to reflect the actual views of the council they came from.” On the other hand, “they would not be told ‘this is how you must vote,’ for if they were, then the higher council they were attending would not be a deliberative body.”
Shalom suggests that “the number of members on each council should be determined on the basis of a society-wide decision, and perhaps revised on the basis of experience, so as to meet the following criteria: small enough to guarantee that people can be involved in deliberative bodies, where all can participate in face-to-face discussions; but yet big enough so that (1) there is adequate diversity of opinion included; and (2) the number of layers of councils needed to accommodate the entire society is minimized.”
Shalom clarifies, perhaps contrary to most people’s intuitions, that “a council size of 25, with 5 layers, assuming half the population consists of adults, can accommodate a society of 19 million people; a council size of 40, again would need 5 layers to accommodate 200 million people; a 50-person council could accommodate 625 million people by the fifth level. With a sixth level, even a 25-person council could accommodate a society of about half a billion people” thus making a case that his layered councils are flexible and well within practical possibility.
What happens in these proposed political councils?
Legislation is enacted, which is to say voting on norms and collective agendas takes place. The councils are deliberative and public. The idea is to utilize them to approximate as much as possible within a sensible time frame and in accord with the importance of particular issues, self managed decision making. Sometimes higher level councils vote and decide. Sometimes they deliberate and report back and lower level councils vote and decide. The exact combination or range of combinations of voting at the base versus voting in higher level councils, and of procedures for presenting, debating, and tallying viewpoints, and of how precisely council members are chosen, are all, among many other features, degrees of political detail we don’t have to address in a cursory chapter like this. Shalom has begun considering the issues, and no doubt more needs to be done, including, of course, learning from future experiences. For purposes of discussing the relation between parecon and a desirable polity, however, it is enough to say that a worthy legislative branch will likely incorporate face to face nested councils using open methods of information transfer, debate, and voting aimed at providing all actors self managing say over the decisions that affect them.
Shalom’s discussions of the role not only of tallying votes but also of contributing time, energy, and funds to political struggles as part of the process of guaranteeing self management, as well as of the dynamics of representation and deliberation, are all highly instructive, as are existing explorations of voting procedures such as instant run off voting, and of decision mechanisms such as consensus, but again, they are all beyond what we need to include here.
What about shared executive functions?
On the one hand, parecon takes care of a lot of what we typically know as executive functions in contemporary politics and, in doing so, helps pinpoint the remaining truly political element. Think of delivering the mail, of investigating and trying to limit outbreaks of disease, or of providing environmental protection. All of these pursuits involve a production and allocation aspect handled by the structures of participatory economics, including balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and participatory decision making. The worker’s council delivering mail would in these respects not be particularly different from the workers council producing bicycles, nor would the center for disease control worker’s council be very different in its economic aspects from a typical hospital, and likewise for the Environmental Protection Agency and a typical research institute.
But in another sense the three examples are different from their parecon counterparts. The Post Office, CDC, and EPA operate with the sanction of the polity and carry out tasks that the polity mandates. Particularly in the case of the CDC and EPA, executive agencies act with political authority that permits them to investigate and sanction others where typical economic units would have no such rights and responsibilities.
It follows that the executive branch is largely concerned with establishing politically mandated functions and responsibilities which are then typically carried out according to the norms of the participatory economy but with a political aspect defining their agendas and perhaps conveying special powers. If it aids understanding this overlap between polity and economy is more or less analogous to the overlap between culture and economy visible when churches function in the economy for their inputs and perhaps some of their outputs, but do so with a cultural/religious definition. The change in economics to having a parecon instead of capitalism is part of what makes a polity or culture or family or other aspect of society new in a new society, but the heart of their alteration is the change in their intrinsic logic.
Presumably the means for an executive branch to politically mandate its agendas and establish lasting mechanisms to oversee them would be largely the deliberation and votes of a legislative branch, on the one hand, and economic planning on the other hand, as well as establishing empowered entities with their own rules of operation like the CDC and other politically empowered agencies.
But then what would be the role of a judiciary in a parpolity?
As Shalom asserts, “Judicial systems often address three kinds of concerns: judicial review (are the laws just?), criminal justice (have specific individuals violated the laws?), and civil adjudication (how are disputes between individuals resolved?).”
For the first, Shalom offers a court system that would operate more or less like the Supreme Court does now, with hierarchical levels adjudicating disputes arising over council choices. Is this the best approach we can imagine, and can it be refined or transformed to further enhance self management? I don’t know. It certainly merits close consideration.
For criminal matters and civil adjudication, Shalom proposes a court system modestly different from what we have now, plus a police force that would of course have balanced job complexes and enjoy remuneration for effort and sacrifice.
Regarding having a police function and associated work force in a desirable society - which is actually for many people more controversial than matters of courts - I agree with Shalom and don’t really see any alternative or any intractable problems. There will be crimes in a good society, sometimes violent and sometimes even horribly evil, and investigation and capture of criminals will be serious matters requiring special skills. It seems obvious that some people will do that kind of work, with special rules and features to ensure they do it well and also consistently with social values - just as some people will spend some of their work time flying airplanes or treating patients or doing other difficult and demanding jobs that require special skills and have special rules to ensure they are done well and consistently with social values.
The contrary idea that policing would be unnecessary in a humane system is not realistic. Sure, in a good society many reasons for crime would be eliminated and criminal acts would likely be far fewer, but that doesn’t mean there will be no crime at all. And the idea that policing will be needed but can be done on an entirely voluntary basis makes no more sense than saying flying planes or doing brain surgery will be needed but can be done entirely on a voluntary basis. It fails to realize that policing, and especially desirable policing, like flying planes or doing surgery, involves special skills and knowledge. It fails to recognize the need for training and likely also special rules to avoid misuse of police (or transport or medical) prerogatives.
Beyond the implications of pareconish workplace structure and decision making for police motivations, might there be a special limited duration for police work? Might there be empowered community review mechanisms to oversee specific rules of police operations and evaluation? Will the different approaches of a good society to determining guilt or innocence and to administering punishment and rehabilitation impact police functions very differently than old approaches they replace? The answers are all conceivably yes, perhaps even very likely yes, but again, the details are beyond our purview here.
It is not the police part of the judicial system, it seems to me, but the courts part, the legal advocates part, and the jury part that may be most difficult to dramatically improve in a better society.
On the one hand, as Shalom argues, the advocate model in which lawyers work on behalf of clients regardless of guilt or innocence makes considerable sense. We don’t want people having to defend themselves so that those who are good at it have a tremendous advantage over those who are not good at it. We therefore need well-trained lawyers and prosecutors available to all disputants.
We also want these advocates to try hard, of course. But at the same time, the injunction that prosecutors and defense attorneys should seek to win favorable verdicts regardless of their knowledge of the true guilt or innocence of the accused and by any means that they can muster - because that approach will yield the greatest probability of truthful results - strikes me as about as believable, in certain respects, as the injunction that everyone in an economy should seek selfish private gain as the best means of benefiting society as a whole and engendering sociality. However, as to how to adapt or replace the combination of courts, judges, juries, and aggressive advocacy with different mechanism, other than concerning matters of new norms of remuneration and job definition that economic innovations indicate, I have no good ideas.
The state of shared political vision on the left, for locales, countries, or internationally, whether for legislative, executive, or adjudicative functions, is still modest, in my view, and needs to be developed to justify future advocacy. Nonetheless, many broad guidelines exist, and it is certainly possible to think about the relation of both existing economies and of parecon to political prospects.
Parpolity and the Economy
Milton Friedman, a far
Friedman went on to add that, “the kind of economic organization that provides economic freedom directly, namely, competitive capitalism, also promotes political freedom because it separates economic power from political power and in this way enables the one to offset the other.”
This claim, however, unlike Friedman’s prior more general observation, is one of the most absurd utterances to be found in the domain of political or economic thought. In contradiction to Friedman’s view, the truth is that capitalist economics produces gigantic centers of concentrated power in the form of its corporations and their ruling elements. It also produces atomized weakened, de-centered, and disconnected workers and consumers. Further, it provides diverse means to translate corporate economic might into political influence by corporations controlling communication, information, and the finances of electioneering, as well as corporations political figures. Finally, capitalist economy even ensures that the isolation and disconnection of workers is further enforced by media manipulation and the alienation that comes from the population knowing that political outcomes are predetermined.
The result of all this is that corporate lobbies and other elites determine political agendas and ensure that elections choose between candidates who differ primarily in how best to maintain elite prerogatives and advantages. Most of the population doesn’t even participate in the electoral charades and among those who do participate, most have no other option than to repeatedly favor a lesser evil.
Parpolity, or any desirable political system that movements might advocate, will require an economy that doesn’t elevate some to positions of power over others. It will need the economy to immerse the whole populace in an environment of participation, self management, sociality, and solidarity so that all citizens might best fulfill parpolity’s requirements and enjoy its possibilities.
Parpolity will need and in turn help produce citizens who have broadly the same power, who have a social inclination to participate, and who have habits of sociality and solidarity - and precisely the same can be said for a parecon.
Likewise a desirable polity will need and help produce citizens schooled to positively enhance and benefit from managing their own affairs in accord with collective well being while respecting diverse needs and outcomes - which is true for a parecon as well.
Parecon and parpolity are, by design, welcome partners in social organization. They share the same underlying logic of seeking to attain equitable outcomes in a solidaritous and diverse environment, under the self-managing auspices of those affected.
If we think of a parpolity and a parecon each as a kind of social system that takes in and also sends out people after impacting their consciousnesses, habits, degrees of fulfillment, talents, knowledge, skills, and inclinations, we see that each requires and produces what the other provides and needs.
And indeed, due to the similar requirements they each offer the other, it is more than plausible that a parpolity and a parecon could mutually combine to become a classless “political economy” that delivers solidarity, diversity, equity/justice, and self management.
Addendum: Parpolity and Political Strategy Today
Parpolity’s main implications for political and social strategy have to do with two dimensions of activism - what we demand and how we organize ourselves.
Having a political vision will hopefully tell us a variety of things we might demand in the present. That is, we could try to win changes in government and political practices now that reflect and move toward the logic of parpolity. These might include instant run-off voting procedures, vast extensions of public media and debate, new means of the public choosing executive programs, and still unclear judicial reforms.
When movements fight for such demands in the present, two very broad criteria that arise from political vision ought to inform their activity. First, of course, they should be trying to win improvements in people’s lives. Second, they should be trying to make changes that empower people to win still more gains and that educate and inspire people to want to do so.
On both counts, by examining the features of a proposed political vision, we ought to be able to discern present day changes that would benefit, empower, and inspire people, as well as increasing desire for the political future we seek.
But an additional implication of political vision for present practice has to do with movement organization and structure. If we want the politics of the future to have certain features and properties, surely we should try as much as we can to incorporate those features and properties into our current operations.
In other words, our movements should, in their internal political structure and practices, elevate solidarity, diversity, justice, and self management. The conditions under which we operate today are constrained in ways unlike those of a future society, of course. We have to deal with repressive structures all around us. But nonetheless a central implication of political vision is that as soon and as much as we are able to do so we should seek to build movements based on grassroots organization and participation and even on nested tiers of councils for organizational decision making.
As a political vision becomes more compelling and is shared by more people, desirable ways to adjudicate movement disputes, enact shared movement agendas, legislate movement norms, and otherwise arrive at movement decisions, should become clearer and, over time, easier to incorporate in our efforts.
Let me pose just one possible lesson. Typically, contemporary movements have two forms. They are either organized around a single issue and involve a focused organization fighting for wages or health care or women’s right to choose, or for some other single issue goal. Or they are coalitions composed of many such organizations teaming up to promote a shared usually quite narrowly defined agenda. What our movements actually seeking to win specific gains are usually not, however, are very broad and diverse agglomerations of people who mutually respect divergent viewpoints who operate effectively together despite and even in celebration of their differences.
The fragmentation of our movements into single-issue efforts or into coalitions that bury differences and that come and go with events bears only minimal resemblance to a good society or polity. It isn’t that in the future there won’t be people with single primary concerns or even organizations that are narrowly focused or coalitions that come in and out of fashion. It is that a good society itself will not primarily isolate people and groups into narrow concerns. It will, instead, overwhelmingly be a community with diverse views and agendas in which we all respect and incorporate each other’s concerns into our overall efforts to maintain social cohesion.
If a movement is to be the harbinger of and a school for a new society, it should not be primarily atomized and narrow. It should instead somehow incorporate differences, deal with them, and in so doing make itself steadily stronger.
Suppose that instead of only creating coalitions organized around a narrow list of agreed demands, an encompassing movement of movements, say, or perhaps we might call it a revolutionary bloc, was also created. This would be an amalgam of all organizations, projects, and movements and their members, and maybe include individual members also, all of whom subscribed to some broad range of values, priorities, and organizational norms including and encompassing a wide range of differences.
This new movement structure would take its leadership regarding aspects of its focus from those of its members most directly dealing in the focused areas - thus from the women’s movement about gender issues, from black and Latino movements about race, from the anti war movement about peace issues, and from labor and consumer movements about economic matters. Instead of the whole structure being defined by a little part of the overall priority of each component group that all shared, the whole structure would be the total sum of all the key priorities of all its component groups, contradictions and all, just as a society is. This new movement structure would indeed be a new society in embryo. Its internal organization and operations would presumably reflect our aspirations for the new society we seek, including incorporating the modes of council organization, election processes, means of communication, etc., of our political vision.
While more needs to be said about these matters, for now, the critical claim is that while the problem of envisioning improved political structures is still in process, and while we can’t know for sure until we are further down that track what political features we should advocate, it nonetheless seems we can be reasonably confident that participatory economics both produces people and conditions that will contribute to political justice and easily honor a desirable polity’s requirements.