Parecon and Strategy
This essays is excerpted from the Zed Press book, Realizing Hope
The effort to win a new economy will obviously have a great many facets. In Moving Forward (AK Press) I discussed parecon related strategic issues in detail. A more recent book by Robin Hahnel, Economic Justice and Democracy, addresses parecon related strategic issues more historically. Here, I should at least note that pareconish movements will likely build and then emphasize workers and consumers councils that engage in wide-ranging pursuits for many years, continually enriching members’ consciousness and advancing members’ capacities for self organization.
These workers and consumers councils, along with other related movement organizations ranging from mass movements to local projects, will certainly struggle to win reforms - meaning to win gains in workplaces (such as better conditions and pay), in neighborhoods (such as pollution controls and public services), and in the whole economy (such as redirection of national budgets and expansion of democratic control over them). They will do all this, however, in a non-reformist manner, cooperating with movements seeking to win gains in kinship, cultural, political, international, and ecological relations.
In other words, movements to win a new society, including, but certainly not limited to a new economy, will not assume that existing defining social features will persist forever, but will seek to win reforms that will improve people’s lives in the present as part of the process of fully replacing those defining features in the future.
A fight for higher wages will not be an end unto itself but will seek to raise public consciousness of the worthiness and viability of later instituting a system of remuneration for effort and sacrifice. It will seek to win higher wages now, and also inform and enrich the means and desires to win full equity later.
A fight for better working conditions will not be an end unto itself, but will seek to raise public consciousness of the worthiness and viability of later instituting balanced job complexes. It may seek new forms of accountability, information transfer, job sharing, and job training, all moving toward classless workplace organization.
A fight over pollution controls and public services will not be an end unto itself, but will seek to raise consciousness of the worthiness and viability of later instituting the means for consumers as well as producers to influence all economic decisions that affect them through self management. It may seek elements of collective consumption planning or other restructuring and restrictions on current consumption and production, moving toward allocation in accord with true social costs and benefits.
A fight over winning less military spending and more social spending, and over democratizing control of collective consumption will not be an end unto itself, but will seek to raise public consciousness of the worthiness and viability of transcending both market allocation and central planning with a new system of cooperative negotiated allocation called participatory planning, and will seek to win additional gains in that direction.
These and all other projects undertaken to improve lives now will also always seek to leave movements stronger, better organized, more committed, and even more desirous to win further changes as time passes, rather than leaving movements sated and inclined to call a premature halt to their endeavors.
There will be pareconist efforts to win immediate reforms, and then more reforms, and still more reforms, but all these efforts will not only continually respect the limits and contexts of current conditions, but also self consciously lead toward future revolutionary goals.
Much of what this will look like can be known only through actual future experience, because what movements for change will do will depend to a considerable degree on what agents of reaction do, and on what future conditions make relevant and possible. Nothing about movement choices is set out inflexibly in advance, other than, arguably, a few very broad features that would be hard to do without if we are to win the new economy we seek.
In that light a key insight that emerges from what we might call a pareconish understanding of both economic vision and current economic relations is that movements can be anti-capitalist and even overcome capitalism, and yet nonetheless not attain classlessness, equity, solidarity, diversity, or self management.
The choice that faces social activists is not the two-way choice between capitalism and classlessness, that is, but is instead the three-way choice between capitalism, coordinatorism, and classlessness. And this means that anti-capitalist activism that seeks to attain a new type of economy needs to very carefully orient itself to attain classlessness rather than coordinator class rule. More, this isn’t only a matter of a movement’s members having admirable wishes and hopes.
Coordinatorism is an economy in which a layer of people who in capitalism receive wages and are certainly not capitalists, become a new ruling class over the still subordinate working class. This layer I call the coordinator class. In capitalism, it holds a relative monopoly over daily decision making and empowering work as compared to the working class, which performs overwhelmingly rote and obedient labor.
The coordinator class is, in other words, composed of managers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other people whose roles in economic life give them substantial control over their own conditions of work and over the conditions of work of those below. The coordinators earn more than those who labor below them. The coordinators have more status than those who labor below them. The coodinators see themselves and subordinate workers differently than capitalists see coordinators and subordinate workers, and, likewise, subordinate workers see coordinators differently than they see capitalists.
Coordinators legitimate their ruling position by claiming superior capacity and insight due to their having more training, schooling, and on the job empowerment. However, these advantages are not intrinsic to individuals, as coordinators tend to believe, but are socially determined and enforced. It is holding a collective monopoly over empowering positions in the economy, not personal merit, that distinguishes the coordinator class from the working class.
In coordinatorism, this third class that resides in capitalism between labor and capital becomes the ruling class above workers. Private ownership of the means of production is eliminated - a progressive step - but compromising this gain is the retention of corporate divisions of labor with top down decision making and with either markets or central planning for allocation. Remuneration in coordinatorism is based on bargaining power, and, to a lesser degree, output. Decisions are made overwhelmingly by the coordinator class. This is not a hypothetical scenario: coordinator class rule has existed under the names market socialism and centrally planned socialism, both in actual practice and in textbook models.
And so arises the strategic point that I would like to make in closing this brief chapter. Anti capitalist activism can have as its goal elevating the coordinator class or eliminating class differences. Movements of each type against capitalism will find themselves fighting, very often, for the same short- and even medium-term aims, including higher wages, better conditions, new property relations, and greater say for workers and consumers, as well as presumably supporting diverse struggles for gains in other dimensions of social life.
What will differentiate movements likely to usher in classlessness from movements likely to usher in coordinatorism will, for the most part, not, therefore, be their short-term demands. Rather the difference will lie in the arguments they offer on behalf of their typically similar short-term demands, the goals they say their similar short term demands are part of a process to reach, and the ways their respective movements are organized to “melt into” a new economy and society or, instead, to assume that the current one will persist forever.
Do the movements tend to mimic corporate divisions of labor in their internal structure? Do they tend to employ competitive or authoritative logics of remuneration? Do they implement authoritative decision making, or even formally democratic decision making that is always, however, dominated by a relatively few people who have coordinator class credentials or aspirations? Do they tend to not only utilize, but to reproduce and even enlarge advantages in knowledge and social skills that some members have as compared to others, and to elevate coordinator-class rather than working-class values and preferences? Do they feel congenial to, and empower, coordinators more than workers, and even obscure the existence of a coordinator class, much less the importance of avoiding becoming subservient to it?
If the answers to these questions are yes, then, even if nearly all members of such movements sincerely want more than anything else to attain real classlessness, the movements are, nonetheless - even despite the aspirations of their members - far more likely to usher in coordinator domination of workers. Their structures will override their members’ desires.
On the other hand, do the movements reject corporate divisions of labor in their structure, and instead opt for balanced job complexes? Do they reject old-style remuneration and instead value only effort and sacrifice in determining income? Do they reject authoritative decision making, and even formally democratic decision making that is always predictably dominated by a few members, and instead opt for real self management by all members? Do they carefully, and as a high priority, work to reduce and finally undo advantages in knowledge and social skills that some movement members have as compared to others? Do they elevate working class rather than coordinator class values and preferences? Do they feel congenial to and empower working class members more than coordinator class members, and do they highlight not only the existence of a coordinator class, but also the importance of avoiding tutelage to it?
If the answers to these questions are yes, then we are likely talking about a movement that is headed toward classlessness not only in its claims, but in its definition and deeds.
Strategy for winning a new economy is most certainly contextual, and therefore, in many respects unspecifiable in advance. But in the broad features noted above, we can distinguish between efforts to ameliorate capitalism while leaving the capitalist system in place, and efforts intended to win gains now but also, in time, replace capitalism completely. We can also distinguish between efforts to overcome capitalism to attain coordinator class elevation via market or centrally planned socialism, and efforts to overcome capitalism to attain the elimination of classes via participatory economics.
I have a final point to make, also bearing on strategy. What if, some might reply to all this, victory is simply impossible? Yes, they say, after a full assessment of the arguments, we agree with you that you have made a case for a new type of economy vastly superior to capitalism and also to what has heretofore borne the name socialism, but which should have been called coordinatorism. And yes, we agree that you have made a case that this new parecon would be compatible with, and even positively benefit other dimensions of social life. And yes, we agree with you that you have indicated some of the properties a movement would have to incorporate to attain a parecon. But we think that your having described properties necessary to winning a parecon is a far cry from describing properties sufficient to winning a parecon.
We wonder, therefore, what if there is no list of sufficient conditions? What if history has progressed so far and so long down oppressive paths that extrication from exploitation is no longer possible? What if there is no route from where we have journeyed thus far in history to the very different destination we would like to reach? What if the direct path from oppression to liberation is blocked, the path back and around is blocked, the path forward and over is blocked? What if in every direction there are only insurmountable obstacles? Then aren’t all your demonstrations regarding parecon’s theoretical desirability irrelevant? Aren’t we stuck, our aspirations aside, with capitalism forever?
My answer is yes, if we are stuck, as you assume, then of course we are stuck, as you conclude. The depressing conclusion is true by virtue of your depressed assumptions. But the assumption of conclusions has never constituted an argument for them, and there is both no reason to assume the conclusions you list and no argument to justify them.
When someone says there is no alternative - which claim we have tried to erase - or says, maybe there is an alternative, but we cannot attain it because the obstacles are too great, the first thing to note is that the messenger ought to be crying. Someone saying there is no better social future is like a biologist reporting we will never find a cure for cancer. Those who make such harmful claims with smiles on their faces reveal by their demeanor that their logic isn’t logic but is, instead, wish fulfillment - which is to say, rationalization of horrible injustice in service of their elite privilege and prejudice.
But okay, suppose a sober, serious, caring person is miserable over their conclusions, but nonetheless puts forth the claim that though parecon and a better society are humanly conceivable and would be worthy and viable, nonetheless, the forces reinforcing current relations are too great to escape. It is as if we can conceive a universe of possibility off the planet, the person says. We know it is out there. We even know what its main features look like. But, regardless of that knowledge, our planet’s gravity is too great for us to break free and reach the new world. Analogously, the person argues, we can conceive of the better future that parecon promises, but the tentacles of the past are too strong to escape.
My answer is that being activist is not rolling rocks up hills, digging useless ditches, blowing into the wind, or opposing gravity. It is part of the single most important, most courageous, and most productive undertaking in all human history, one with deep roots and a winning future. I can’t prove this. No one can prove claims about what people will achieve in the future. But I believe it.
In contrast, do those who think that resigning to capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and authoritarianism forever makes sense believe that the abolitionists were wrong, that workers in daily struggles for better wages and conditions have been wrong, that the advocates of women and blacks and Latinos being people were wrong, and that seeking liberation has been and will be wrong?
Do they really want to assert that wage slavery is forever? That it somehow violates nature and reason, or even just the accumulated history of human engagements and traditional constructions, that human beings should collectively rise up to control their own lives rather than the majority of people being always and forever subject to the domineering will of an oppressive minority?
Do they really want to say that people can't devise and implement - even against stiff opposition and diehard habits - new systems in which poverty and starvation and death by preventable diseases and denial of dignity and personal stature are eradicated?
On what grounds do they proclaim such pessimism? Once upon a time, when Pharaohs whipped and/or mesmerized slaves into building their tombs (and maintained their dominance for thousands of years with marginal changes of any kind), or when emperors dragooned peasants into fighting lions for imperial entertainment, or when slave owners lynched growers into maximal output and minimal freedom and fulfillment, was it desirable to resign from opposition? Why is now different? Does someone, somewhere, suddenly have a crystal ball which says that no matter how hard humanity struggles, there will be no better future?
To win a better future we need to generate a trajectory of activism that elites cannot repress away or manipulatively derail, which they can't calmly abide, and which, perhaps even more significantly, will not implode because it embodies values and dynamics that run contrary to its own aspirations.
But what dissident approach can't be repressed away, can't be manipulated off course, and won’t destroy or distort itself? The only answer I know is rapidly growing numbers of dissidents with varied focuses for their dissent, and with steadily escalating commitment and militancy, all bound together by informed shared commitment to a sufficiently conceived widely enough shared vision of the future to both motivate and make steadfast their efforts.
To succeed, we need not just growing numbers of dissidents, not just multiple focuses, not just growing commitment and militancy, and not just widely shared inspiring vision, but all these assets. To me, since our movements have never simultaneously long sustained all these features, past failures (and there have been many partial victories as well, of course), reveal only our need for comprehensive diligence. They do not convey that there is some impossible additional component of activism that we can never attain. The right response to the difficulty of social revolution is not doubt that it can happen, but persistence in making it happen.