Parecon and Visionary Practice
By Michael Albert at Apr 10, 2004
In today’s world large movements espousing similar aspirations struggle worldwide to better the lives of disenfranchised and abused populations around the globe. Some undertakings pressure elites to beneficially alter existing institutions. Other efforts seek to create new institutions to “live the future in the present.” Some efforts are small and local. Some encompass whole geographic regions. If we look at a selection of visionary practices, we can see many features which have led to the reasoning presented in this book. Parecon doesn’t float in space, that is, but arises from the aspirations and the insights of a huge range of activist efforts. Here are a few examples.
Historically almost every instance of working people and consumers even briefly attaining great control over their own conditions has incorporated both in locales and in workplaces institutions of direct organization and democracy. These have been called councils or assemblies, and given other names as well. Their common feature, however, has been providing a direct vehicle for people to develop, refine, express and implement personal and collective agendas. Both the successes of such endeavors, and also the undeniable fact that they have been repeatedly destroyed by counter forces, fuel and inform our advocacy of workplace and consumer councils in parecon and our efforts to conceive a context in which such councils can thrive rather than be thrashed.
Throughout the history of struggle against injustice there has also been great attention to matters of equity and specifically to the idea that people ought to enjoy life possibilities in a fair and appropriate manner. We should be able to earn a bit more or less by our choices, of course, but not for unworthy reasons. In times of upsurge and self-determination such as in Spain during the Spanish Anarchist struggles there, or earlier in the Paris Commune, and at many other moments as well from major national strikes in the West to movements for freedom in the East and South, seekers of economic justice have realized that there is something horribly wrong with remunerating those who enjoy more fulfilling work and who have more say in social life more than those who do more rote and damaging work and have less say in social life. Parecon’s priority to remunerate only effort and sacrifice arises from these aspirations and also gives them more precise substance than they have previously enjoyed.
But what about instances from the present? Is parecon connected to current exploratory and innovative economic efforts?
Consider collective workplace experiments around the world, including co-ops, worker-owned plants, and collective workplaces. Workers gain control over their factories, perhaps buying them rather than having capitalists close them down entirely, or perhaps originating new enterprises of their own from scratch. The newly in-charge workers attempt to incorporate democracy. They try to redefine the division of labor. They seek narrower income differentials. But the market environment in which they operate makes all this horribly difficult. By their experiences of such difficulties, workers’ and consumers’ efforts at creating worker-controlled enterprises and consumer co-ops provide extensive experience relevant to the definition of parecon. Not only co-op successes, but also their difficulties—such as tendencies for old-style job definitions to re-impose widening income differentials and tendencies for market imposed behaviors to subvert cooperative aims and values—teach important lessons. Indeed, in my own experience, the effort to create the radical publishing house South End Press and to incorporate equity and self-management in its logic and practice powerfully informed many of the insights that together define participatory economics, particularly the idea and practice of balanced job complexes. Likewise, a number of on-going current experiments in implementing parecon structures continue to inform the vision and its various features.
On a grander scale, consider the movement for what is called “solidarity economics” that has advocates in many parts of South America (and particularly Brazil), Europe, and elsewhere. Its defining idea is that economic relations should foster solidarity among participants rather than causing participants to operate against one another’s interests. Not only should economic life not divide and oppose people, it should not even be neutral on this score but should generate mutuality and empathy. Advocates of solidarity economics thus pursue ideas of local worker’s control and of allocative exchange with this norm in mind. Parecon takes their insight that institutions should propel values we hold dear and extends it in additional directions. We want a solidarity economy in the same sense as its advocates do. But we also want a diversity economy, an equity economy, and a self-managing economy. Indeed we want one economy that fulfills all these aspirations simultaneously. Parecon thus arises from, respects, and seeks to provide additional dimensions to solidarity economics.
Or consider the efforts, some years back, in Australia of labor unions to influence not only the conditions and wages of their members’ work lives, but also what people produced. They developed the idea of “Green Bans” which were instances where workers in building trades would ban certain proposed projects on the grounds they were socially or environmentally unworthy. Sometimes they would not only ban the proposed endeavors that capitalists sought to undertake, but would also undertake alternative projects of their own design intended to treat environment and people appropriately. This experience of course foreshadows and informs both parecon’s norms for deciding work and its apportionment of power to affected constituencies. Parecon extends the logic of Australia’s Green Bans into a full economic vision for all facets of economic life.
Or consider the efforts in Porto Alegre and other Brazilian cities and in Kerala and other regions of India to incorporate elements of participatory democracy into budget decisions for cities and regions. Indeed, in Brazil this project is named “participative budgeting” and the idea is to establish means of local direct organization via which citizens can affect decisions about collective investments regarding government services such as parks, education, public transport, and health care. Parecon’s participatory planning has the same aspirations and impetus, but writ larger, encompassing not only public goods but all goods, and facilitating not only proportionate participation by consumers, but also by workers.
Indeed, for all the examples noted above and many more as well, advocates of participatory economics could be expected, once organized in sufficiently large movements, to pursue similar struggles—the only difference being the way pareconists would explain their actions as being part of a process leading to a whole new economy they would advocate, and perhaps how they would try to create new infrastructure and consciousness by not only fostering the immediate aims, but by also empowering participants to win still more gains in a trajectory leading all the way from capitalism to parecon. Pareconist workers’ control efforts would seek to attain allocation gains as well, plus new divisions of labor. Pareconist attempts to institute “participatory budgets” would seek as well to address norms of remuneration and job allocation and to engender participation not only in communities regarding public goods, but also in workplaces regarding all goods. Pareconist union and workers councils would seek to affect not only the conditions and circumstances of members’ jobs, but also the worthiness of undertaken projects, and would likewise try to link with consumer movements and spread the efforts to government sectors and consumer behavior.
In other words, the participatory economic vision put forth in coming chapters not only springs from and is consistent with past and present struggles to better people’s immediate lives in diverse ways, it also offers encompassing values and logic to link all these efforts and to enlarge each consistent with its own best aspirations but also with the logic and aspirations of others beyond.
And what about the newest and certainly very promising World Social Forum? Here is a remarkable amalgamation of movements, constituencies, activists, and projects from all over the globe linked by an open and experimental attitude, a commitment to participation, feelings of mutual respect, and attention to diversity and democracy, all celebrating the sentiment that “another world is possible.” In 2002, at its second incarnation, roughly 50,000 participants began to enunciate features that that better world might have. The most widely shared sentiments were rejection of markets and support for self-management, rejection of vast differentials in income and support for equity, rejection of homogenizing commercialism and support for diversity, rejection of imperial arrogance and support for solidarity, and rejection of ecological devastation and support for sustainability. No doubt WSF 2003 will have taken this agenda many steps further by the time this book appears. And like the WSF, parecon contributes visionary economic ideas in hopes that political, cultural, kinship, global, and ecological visionary aims will prove compatible and mutually supportive.
Participatory economics provides a new economic logic including new institutions with new guiding norms and implications. But parecon is also a direct and natural outgrowth of hundreds of years of struggle for economic justice as well as contemporary efforts with their accumulated wisdom and lessons. What parecon can contribute to this heritage and to today’s activism will be revealed, one way or the other, in coming years.