Parecon and Solidarity
Keynote Address at the All for One, One for All Conference, in Vienna Austria
First, thank you for having me speak here - it is a great honor, of course.
First, thank you for having me speak here - it is a great honor, of course.
Ordinarily I speak rather informally, without a text, barely using an outline. But, with simultaneous translation, it is much easier for the translators, whose job, by the way, is incredibly difficult, if I stick to a prepared text... so I will do that, until we get to questions and answers, at any rate.
I would like to talk primarily about economics, because I happen to know more about that than other dimensions of society.
In Questions and Answers, again, later, we can broaden the focus to politics, kinship, culture, or whatever else you like.
I want to address four questions as the basis for the talk.
What is solidarity?
What impedes solidarity in current economies?
What features would guarantee that a new economy incorporates and even generates solidarity?
What difference does favoring a new economy make? What good would the new vision do us, now?
I am going to argue for what I call participatory economics, or parecon for short, a vision to replace capitalism and also what has been called socialism.
I think participatory economics, or parecon, is a solidarity economy, in accord with this conference, but also ...
a diversity economy
an equitable economy
a self managing economy
an efficient economy
a sustainable and ecologically wise economy
and a classless economy.
These virtues, indeed, are why I advocate it.
What is solidarity, in economics?
I think economic solidarity is recognizing that economic life affects how we view and impact one another.
Solidarity exists if we have mutual interests and a degree of empathy and mutual insight. It arises from having shared rather than opposed interests.
Solidarity is wanting production, allocation, and consumption to enhance ties among people.
Solidarity is for me to do well, I have to be concerned with others doing well and vice versa. The economy causes me to seek benefits in ways that benefit others too.
Solidarity is not a rat race economy in which we advance only at the expense of others, but is a mutually beneficial economy, in which we advance in concert with one another. Moreover, once stated thusly, favoring solidarity isn’t even controversial.
Who would say that they would rather have a society that makes us anti-social, greedy, and mutually suspicious, as compared to a society that produces mutual aid and empathy?
Okay, then, if we want solidarity, we have to next ask -
What impedes solidarity in current economies?
Describing institutions that cause us to be anti-social rather than mutually supportive could occupy us for a long time. We will have to just consider a few.
First obstacle to solidarity: some people own means of production. The rest work for wages.
This private ownership gives people opposed interests.
If I am an owner and you are my workforce, I will do better...
if you get less pay
if you work under conditions that cost me less to maintain
if you work more intensely and longer each day or year, and
if you are made organizationally weak.
You will do better, in contrast, if you reverse all those trends, against my interests.
Current ownership relations therefore destroy solidarity. To have solidarity we must replace them with something new.
Second obstacle to solidarity: about 20% of the workforce have a relative monopoly on empowering tasks. About 80%, do mostly rote and obedient tasks.
Let’s call the former group the coordinator class of doctors, lawyers, managers, engineers, etc.
Let’s call the latter group, the working class.
The coordinator class earns way more and has way more control over its conditions and the conditions of workers below.
The working class earns way less and has way less control over its conditions and the conditions of coordinators above.
The coordinator class advances at the expense of the working class and vice versa.
Solidarity dies in this confrontation which means the current division of labor, which gives some actors empowering labor and other actors only subordinate and rote labor, destroys solidarity. To have solidarity we must replace the current division of labor.
Third obstacle to solidarity: is the current top down approach to decision making.
Current corporations are in many respects more dictatorial than Stalin was. Stalin never dreamed of making people ask him permission to go to the bathroom, but that is not uncommon in corporations.
We rarely even know what decisions are made regarding the organization of work, tools, the composition and number of products, procedures, investments, collective consumption, and much else about economic life, much less having a fair say in these decisions.
Instead, owners and to a significant degree members of the coordinator class handle all this, and working people just endure the results, often catastrophically.
But one can’t have solidarity with one’s overseer.
One can’t have solidarity while being deprived the basic requisites of dignity.
The obstacle to solidarity in this case is hierarchical decision making fed by, but also exacerbating, capitalist ownership relations and the corporate division of labor.
We must have different decision making if we seriously want solidarity.
Fourth obstacle to solidarity: people in current economies must compete on the market, both as buyers and as sellers, whether they do so as owners, coordinators, or workers.
The market creates the quintessential anti social system.
Sellers try to sell as little as possible for the highest price possible.
Buyers try to buy as much as possible for as little payment as possible.
Their interests contend and this opposition is alone enough to wipe out solidarity, and yet there are many more dimensions to the problem.
Sellers of course seek to maximize profits, lest they are outcompeted and go out of business.
As a result, they must pollute if it means more profit, which it generally does. It they don’t generate as much profit as others, they will lose market share and eventually die.
They likewise make goods that break down and require service or replacement, if it means more profits, which it generally does.
Without going into all details, it should be clear that with markets solidarity is competed to oblivion as producers dump on and manipulate clients and communities.
We get anti-sociality, not solidarity.
Let me give one more I hope instructive example.
Well, part of it is of course to use the product to enforce being the largest most violent rogue state on the planet, which the
But that’s only part of it, and a pretty modest part. What is the rest of this expenditure about?
Many people say military spending occurs to provide jobs.
In fact, however, hi tech military production produces fewer jobs per dollar invested than just about anything else you could undertake.
Some people say military spending occurs because there are big businesses seeking profits who push for military spending.
Yes, there are, but why don’t big businesses, indeed, often the same ones, push as hard or harder for government spending on schools, or hospitals, or rebuilding and generating better housing, all of which can also generate profits?
The real reason is conflicting interests at the heart of our economies.
What makes military spending a wonderful pursuit, from the point of view of capital, is precisely that it does not benefit anyone but owners and to a degree the coordinator class.
Military spending does not enlighten or uplift workers. It does not make workers more secure and confident.
These failures, looking down from the offices of the owners, are good because they mean workers can continue to be exploited unmercifully.
If, instead of building missiles, tanks, rocket launchers, military bases, etc., the same productive capacity went to education, health, housing, public transport, etc., then the expenditures would leave workers better off, more stable, more confident, better informed, and due to all this better able to bargain for a larger share of society’s outputs, eating into owners’ profits.
That is why owners prefer military spending. It isn’t that the elites love bombs like Dr. Strangelove. They are not perverse in that way.
It is that owners don’t want expenditures to actually benefit working people. A mindset, if you think it through, that is arguably even more perverse.
Could markets be any more contrary to human need?
Let’s not belabor the obvious. We know all too well the obstacles to solidarity - and indeed to civilized existence - in a capitalist economy.
The obstacles are private ownership of means of production, hierarchical authoritarian decision making, corporate divisions of labor, inequitable remuneration, and market allocation.
To attain real solidarity, we have to transcend all of that.
So, in pursuit of solidarity, we come to our third and biggest question...
What features would guarantee that an economy generates solidarity?
For a new economy to generate solidarity, rather than destroy it, we have to accomplish economic functions in ways giving people shared rather than opposed interests.
There are just four major institutional changes we have to enact, which means we can at least summarize them here.
First, we will need what we call...
Self Managing Councils
An economy involves workers and consumers engaging in economic life.
For these actors to all have a fair say over outcomes, they will need a venue in which to express their views and manifest their preferences.
We call these venues workers and consumers councils.
Of course, we can’t have people owning workplaces, and, indeed, the idea of ownership of capital must no longer play a role.
You can think of it as we all own an equal share of everything, or as no one owns any productive assets - it doesn’t matter as long as there is no link between something called owning and either decision making or income.
In other words, ownership is gone as a factor.
But if ownership doesn’t convey decision making rights, what does?
Well, we want people all to have a level of say consistent with everyone feeling that everyone’s apportionment, is fair.
We want everyone feeling a sense of social solidarity having no need to try to take power from others for oneself, and no means to do that, either.
I think there is a simple idea that achieves this and more.
We can call it self management
It is that we should each have a say in decisions in proportion as we are affected by those decisions.
If a decision affects overwhelmingly only me - then I should make that decision basically alone.
We don’t have consensus or a majority, or a super majority algorithm to decide what I wear up here before you, or if someone wants to leave the room to go to the bathroom, or if someone wants to wear a headphone and listen to Bach instead of me.
But what if one of you wants to hold in your lap a loud radio and listen to some heavy metal rock band on it through its speakers?
Then I bet we would all agree that since that ear-spitting decision would affect everyone and especially those who would be distracted...we ought to require consensus.
The point is, sometimes it makes sense to have one person decide, sometimes, a bunch of people, sometimes nearly everyone in the group - and likewise, sometimes we ought to tally preferences for majority rule, or for consensus, or to meet some other norm.
What is going on?
What is it that we intuitively understand to make sense in these cases?
I think the answer is self-management.
We choose our means of sharing information and debating issues and then also our means of tallying preferences to settle on a final decision, in accord with the maxim that each person should have a say proportionate to the degree that he or she is affected.
So we have the first feature of our new economy: workers and consumer councils with self management.
And this not only arrives at decisions justly and consistent with solidarity, it also arrives at the best decisions.
And so, still in search of solidarity, we can move on to our second new feature:
How much do we each get as income for our labors?
Historically, people have been remunerated for property - as in Bill Gates being worth billions upon billions of dollars.
Or for power, as in people getting what they have the power to take, which is the income norm that typifies market exchange.
Or with people getting income in accord with their output, you get an equivalent to the value you yourself produce.
The first two norms are easily rejected by anyone seriously seeking solidarity.
We don’t want capitalist greed, which is remuneration for property, or a thug’s economy, which is remuneration for power.
But what about the third option, remunerating people for what they, themselves, by their efforts, produce?
This is the norm that most socialists favor.
But it doesn’t create desirable incentives. It is immoral. And it destroys solidarity.
The rationale for this approach is simple.
If I produce so much stuff - then I should get back as income an equivalent in value, or perhaps that much minus a share going to social investment and consumption.
If I am born with particular capacities - for example, I am born able to kick a soccer ball brilliantly, or to paint beautifully, or to calculate stunningly, or to lift great weights massively - then, on top of the luck of having been born with these traits, with this norm, I am also showered with great wealth because the traits enable me to produce items or services of great wealth.
Similarly, if I am lucky enough to have wonderful tools that enhance my productivity, or to have efficient workmates that do so, or if I happen to be producing something very highly valued - then, again, by virtue of that luck of my circumstance, I earn way more than others.
One could think this is morally desirable and economically fine - and indeed most socialists think that - but I don’t feel that way.
I instead think remunerating output is grossly unwise economically, morally unfair, and also contrary to generating solidarity.
Briefly, remunerating output means also remunerating genetic endowment, luck in workmates, luck in tools, and luck in the sector of the economy where one works, and for these has no useful incentive benefits.
If you pay me more to have a better genetic endowment - I can’t generate one. Pay me as much as you like, I will not be able to reconstruct myself to be a great soccer player or pianist.
Similarly, while it is certainly desirable that people use good tools, there is no need to reward producers with great income as the means to elicit that end.
Remunerating such attributes as luck in the genetic lottery, which is what traits you are born with, or luck in the tool lottery or the workmate lottery, which is luck regarding where you work, all pile wealth on top of other good fortune, which is not only morally perverse, but also creates huge gaps in income that in turn divide people one from another, obstructing solidarity.
Let’s do one little story, of many that we could explore to make the general case about the incentive issue more fully.
The mainstream economist will tell us that we have to pay surgeons $500,000 a year and short order cooks $25,000 a year, because if we don’t do that, the surgeon won’t become a surgeon.
It isn’t incredible that mainstream economists say this over over. It’s their job to deceive us.
It is incredible, however, that we all tend to believe it. Everywhere I speak people raise it as an objection, particularly students.
We all tend to think this gargantuan disparity in income may be socially perverse, but nonetheless, if we are to have fine medicine, which we certainly do want, then for incentive purposes we must accept the disparity.
But if we think about it, which requires going against the tide of past education and the constantly repeated false message, we can easily see that this widespread belief is utter nonsense.
What the belief says is, in order to get a potential surgeon to go to college instead of flipping hamburgers, and then to go to medical school instead of flipping hamburgers, and then to be an intern instead of flipping hamburgers--we have to pay the surgeon 20 times, and sometimes it is more like 50 or 100 times, what we pay the person cooking the burgers.
All you have to do to see that this is nonsense is to ask a prospective surgeon - or lawyer or engineer, or whatever - whether they would keep on their professional path if we lowered their salary from $500,000, to $400,000, or $200,000, or even $50,000.
The Gallup Report, or I guess I should say the Albert Report, is that I have never had a young student say he or she would choose to forego seeking an empowering future job such as being a surgeon, to endure instead a rote and tedious future job, such as being a short order cook, short of the student fearing that the salary of the empowering work was going to be so low that he or she would starve.
The truth, in other words, bears no resemblance to the mainstream economic lie.
In fact, unless society is organized to keep people from having access to opportunities, you have to pay people more to get them to do something boring, tedious, and obedient than you have to pay them to do something empowering, diverse, and inspiring.
We might ask, then, to complete the story, if it isn’t because we must pay them to get them to forego the joys of tedium and endure the hardships of learning, why do surgeons get such high pay?
The answer is, they get high pay because they have the power to take it.
More, their power comes from keeping down the number of doctors and keeping a tight monopoly on medical knowledge, contrary to serving society’s health needs
They intentionally restrict admission to their fraternity and even have an entry procedure designed to hammer young doctors until they believe they are superior beings who deserve more for all the incredible hardship they endure, even as they defend their power by keeping nurses and others from acquiring too much knowledge, and by keeping down the number of doctors.
Alright, so what does parecon propose, instead?
Parecon proposes that we remunerate people for how long they work, for how hard they work, and for how onerous the conditions of their work are.
We pay people for precisely the attributes of labor they need to receive an incentive to undertake, while being consistent, as well, with treating everyone the same, avoiding great disparities, and being equitable.
You work longer you get more income. You work harder you get more income. You work under worse conditions you get more income. Assuming, of course, that you are doing socially valuable labor.
This new approach is almost diametrically the reverse of what we do now so that if we had people flipping burgers eight hours a day and people doctoring eight hours a day, the former would get higher pay unless, of course, it really did turn out that being a doctor was more onerous than sweating into an early death over a greasy stove hour after hour.
So thus far we have self managing workers and consumers councils providing workers with equitable remuneration for the duration, intensity, and onerousness of their efforts.
We can move on, therefore, to the third key feature of our new economy...
Balanced Job Complexes
We know we have the problem of the corporate division of labor producing a class hierarchy of coordinators, such as managers, lawyers, engineers, etc., over workers.
How do we transcend that?
Imagine you went into a workplace on another planet, and you noticed that there was a very clear demarcation of actors into two groups.
One group made way more than the other, had way more say over outcomes than the other, worked in better conditions than then other, etc.
The better off group was about 20% of the workforce. The worse off group was about 80%.
You look around and you discover that there is another difference.
All the 20% begin each day eating two special candy bars, imported from
You investigate and it turns out that eating those candy bars conveys confidence, energy, skill, knowledge, and even access to daily decision making responsibilities on the shop floor.
So now if we ask you - or even ask an average 7-year old - what do we need to do if we are to remove the distinction which causes 20% of the workforce who eats inspiring uplifting candy to be so much better off than 80% of the workforce who doesn’t, even the 7-year old will easily see that the answer is that we must redistribute the candy so that every gets an equal amount.
Okay, by analogy, what do we have to do about the corporate division of labor all around us if we are to have a desirable new economy?
Answer - we must share the candy, meaning, we must share the empowering labor.
We can’t have it that 20% do only empowering work and 80% do only rote and obedient work, with the former group becoming steadily more confident, knowledgeable, energetic, socially skilled, informed, and by virtue of all that dominating the latter group.
We must opt, instead, for what we can call balanced job complexes, meaning that everyone gets to do a fair share of empowering and rote labor, in a responsible and manageable mix.
Each person has circumstances while at work that comparably empower him or her compared to the circumstances others have while at their work.
The class division between coordinators and workers is therefore eliminated more or less like the class division of owners above and wage earners below was eliminated.
For the ownership case, we got rid of the owners’ monopoly on property. For the division of labor case, we get rid of the coordinators’ monopoly on empowering work.
Okay, that’s what we need to do, but is there a problem with balancing job complexes that way? Might it do more harm than good?
Well, a critic will say, yes, it sounds fair and equitable as well as consistent with solidarity, sure, but the price is way too high. If we have balanced job complexes we will all suffer tremendously because it will consign current surgeons to some time cleaning bed pans, and as a result we will lose a big chunk of their surgery output, and we will all die young.
The answer, of course, is that it is true that Joe or Sue the surgeon will spend less hours doing surgery if he or she has a balanced job complex, but those lost hours of Joe or Sue will be more than made up by all the additional people, beyond the old set, who can now do surgery.
And where would these additional people come from, asks the critic, smugly.
The answer, of course, is they will come from the 80% who were in capitalism forced to endure education designed to stamp out their creativity and teach them to endure boredom and take orders. In the old economy they were molded to fit as exploited workers. In the new economy, have their full talents discovered and developed, and do balanced jobs, including, for some, surgery.
Let me blunt, and we can discuss it more later, if need be.
Anyone who thinks that within the 80% of the population that is the current working class there are not enough folks to become doctors, lawyers, painters, engineers, and so on, working in balanced job complexes, so that overall the amount of time given to these functions and also the quality of output rises, is racist, sexist, and classist.
Such a person must believe, in other words, as coordinators are very much taught to believe, and as workers often succumb to believing as well, that current coordinators are innately smarter, more talented, and more industrious than workers, rather than current workers being robbed of their potentials by being de-schooled into relative ignorance.
Okay, so now we have in our new economy workers and consumers self managed councils, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of work, and balanced job complexes.
What’s left to describe to complete a very broad description of the core features of a new classless economy?
The answer is the new allocation system, which we call...
Describing the alternative to markets and central planning called participatory planning, in convincing detail, requires more time than we have. But let me make a cursory case, at least, before finishing up.
We can’t settle for markets or central planning for allocation because these are both contrary to solidarity, and, more, they literally produce by their dynamics class division between workers and coordinators.
Markets do it by their cost cutting compulsion, central planning does it by its authoritarianism.
Markets and central planning are coordinator class serving modes of allocation, not class eliminating modes of allocation.
So, in their place, we need a different approach.
Imagine that instead of using competition to arrive at economic inputs and outputs and their distribution, and instead of having a central apparatus dictate decisions, workers and consumers councils cooperatively negotiate outcomes.
And imagine they use a process that dynamically and naturally incorporates attention to all personal, social, and ecological costs and benefits.
And imagine this process also gives each worker and consumer a self managing level of influence over the final plan.
If we could define such a process...
- in which there are shared rather than opposed interests for producers and consumers,
- and in which there is information sufficient for accurate valuations
- and in which workers and consumers have appropriate influence over choices...then we would have an allocation system consistent not only with solidarity, but also with self management and classlessness.
This is my claim for participatory planning, spelled out quite extensively, including addressing possible doubts, in longer discussions of it.
The addition of workers and consumers presenting proposals for their own activities and seeing proposals presented by others, and then massaging their proposals in light of accumulating information in a cooperative negotiation of economic outcomes, completes, if only in summary, our list of parecon’s main institutions.
The combination of participatory planning, self managing councils, equitable remuneration, and balanced job complexes yields, if the argument for parecon is correct, a solidarity economy that is classless, efficient, diverse, equitable, and self managing.
I want to clarify one point, however, before dealing briefly with the last of our four questions.
No one should think, based on the above description of parecon’s institutions, “oh boy, parecon is wonderful, I am a pareconist.”
The discussion was too brief to warrant that.
Rather, I would be very happy if you felt that...this guy sounds pretty compelling.
Parecon’s values and institutions sound like maybe they have real merit.
Since I hope classlessness is possible, I will look closely at parecon and evaluate it carefully.
If I like it, great, I will become an energetic advocate.
If I don’t like it, okay, I will work to make it better, or if need be to come up with a new model in its place.
Okay, that said, suppose for the sake of finishing up, that you do give parecon more attention and you do decide that you like it. What then?
Well, then we have our fourth question to address...
What difference would favoring parecon make? What good would the vision do us, now?
The reasons we need a vision of a desirable economy not just later, but right now, are twofold.
We need economic vision, and social vision as well, to sustain hope that can overcome the suicidal belief that there is no alternative.
We can’t overcome that belief, summarized as TINA, by just saying that there is an alternative, no matter how often and no matter how loudly.
Pronouncements won’t convince people.
And we can’t overcome TINA by spelling out wonderful values alone, either, or by describing fulfilling outcomes.
That may sound nice, but it won’t address institutional doubt.
To overcome cynicism about the possibility of a better society we need to offer a compelling, inspiring, worthy, believable vision of the key institutional features of a better society.
So the first benefit of having a shared vision - and I think parecon would be a good economic component of it - is that it will let us compellingly describe a real alternative to dispel TINA, the dictum that there is no alternative.
Secondly, we need vision for direction.
We cannot plant the seeds of the future in the present if we have no idea what the key features of the future are.
Suppose you take a trip.
You go to the airport, with your passport, and with clothes, or whatever you need.
If you don’t know where you want to go, you are likely to wind up on a plane going somewhere you will not like.
It is the same with social change.
Being eager, militant, having a critique, having energy, and commitment isn’t enough.
Without having vision too, we are very likely to wind up where we don’t want to go, as has happened over and over in history.
Let me make this more explicit. It is possible to be anti capitalist but not be for classlessness.
Indeed, one can oppose private ownership of productive assets, profit seeking, and even markets, and still not favor classlessness.
One can be fervently against capitalism but seek, whether self consciously or just by mistake, a new economy in which there is a new ruling class, the coordinator class, still above workers.
Indeed, this is what market socialism and centrally planned socialism have historically done and so they are better called market coordinatorism and centrally planned coordinatorism.
Most of the people who fought for change in socialist movements certainly didn’t want a new class divided economy, but they got it anyway.
Lacking vision they chose means of opposing capital that took them not to classlessness, but to coordinatorism.
The sad truth is that while most rank and file marxists and leninists want justice, equity, solidarity, real democracy, and even self management and classlessness - marxist leninist ideology and its strategic organizational and programmatic allegiances lead, instead, to coordinatorism.
Leninism, I guess you could say, ironically, is the ideology of the coordinator class, not the working class.
So what does parecon offer to deal with this?
Parecon first explains the problem. But second, it also suggests a solution.
Our movements need to incorporate classless dynamics in their very operations, including
balanced job complexes
and self management
Our movements also need to program and culture that empower and elevate working class people, not coordinator class people.
The contrast between coordinator views and parecon views is the contrast between two types of movement - now: a movement which whether by ignorance or by misdirection, opts for organizations that feature corporate divisions of labor and top down decision making and that embodies coordinator cultural patterns and assumptions and has coordinator-led and inspired program and a movement which instead aims toward parecon and classlessness, incorporating balanced job complexes, self management, and working class inspired and led culture and program
I don’t believe this is an exaggeration at all. And I do believe it is critically important, right now, in our activism.
Typical current movement organizations, publishers, think tanks, organizing projects, etc., generally have their biggest donors or fund raisers as boss, which is at most a tiny step up from having an owner as boss.
They also typically have have coordinator values, corporate divisions of labor, etc. No wonder working people don’t flock to them.
The implications of seriously and collectively advocating parecon, right now, are obviously immense and controversial because parecon points toward specific changes in all these attributes, if we are truly to be about winning classlessness.
So, finally, we come to my claims for this talk, which I think you should hope is true but certainly not be convinced of based on such a short and incomplete presentation as this one.
To have solidarity in a new economy we need to have a fully participatory economy, with self managed councils, balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration, and participatory planning.
More, if we do adopt such a vision, the impact on our hope, ability to overcome cynicism, and ability to create program and organization consistent with our true aims will be profound.
I hope in coming months you will look more closely at the model and assess these claims about it, and then make up your own mind.
If you like it, terrific. If you find it wanting - okay, then the task is to come up with something better!