Participatory Economics in Theory & Practice
"Life After Capitalism" Panel Discussion, World Social Forum III
From what I understand, this panel is meant to address the question of work after capitalism, to outline a vision (or visions) of what work might look like in a desirable non-capitalist economy, as well as discuss strategies for getting from here to there that are achievable. My plan is to give as brief an overview of the topic as possible, to highlight the main areas as I see them, stimulate some brainwaves, and then get right into open discussion as quickly as possible.
I assume people already know the nature of the problems we face, and that something needs to be done to change society and the world, to alter the basic structures of power and inequality that have become so dominant, and so obscene. I’m not going to stand up here and insult people’s intelligence by telling them “capitalism is bad.” The Left, or at least the Anglo-American Left (of which I am a part), has been pre-occupied with this for decades, and has done a reasonably good job of it. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the Left has become so good at observing and documenting and critiquing social ills, that it has become more like a witness, and less like the activist engaged in day-to-day struggles that it ought to be. It’s forgotten about vision, it’s forgotten about alternatives, and it’s forgotten that a movement cannot inspire and motivate and grow without positive – and achievable – examples to point to. Most of all, it seems to me, we can’t tell people anything, unless our own movements, our own alternatives, our own institutions embody the values we profess to hold.
So, with this in mind, I’d like to talk mostly about alternative visions of work, and end with a discussion of transition. Inevitably, my vision of a desirable post-capitalist economy, and vision of alternative forms of work, owes much to a legacy of radical theory, informed by libertarian Marxist, feminist, anarchist, Green, and other currents. Particularly helpful and inspiring, in terms of thinking about class and work, has been the “participatory economic” (or parecon) model developed by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel. But this vision, and what I want to talk about today, is not strictly theoretical. Much of my perspective is informed by my actual experience working in a non-hierarchical, collective, worker-run bookstore and restaurant in Winnipeg, Canada, between 1996 and 2001. So I would like to think that the vision of work after capitalism that I want to discuss has lessons and applications for the real world today. Even though my perspective is informed primarily by work and activism from inside the “belly of the beast” (or more accurately for describing Canada, inside the “belly of the lap-dog of the beast”), I would like to believe that it has broader relevance. I would like to believe that it has relevance for those of us working in a range of institutions today, both mainstream and alternative, whether we live in the so-called “advanced” capitalist countries, or the so-called “developing” world. Its relevance, if any, is NOT as a blueprint for replication, but as a case study for discussion and learning and refinement.
A good deal of what is called “visionary” thinking about the nature of work after capitalism operates at a high level of generality. When asked about how work might differ, or how a just economy might operate, many progressive people will say something about direct democracy, and insist that democracy (to be meaningful) must extend beyond the political realm into the economic realm. They insist that there will be collective control over resources and social spending, rather than what we have under capitalism: a state-corporate alliance that runs the economy, top down, makes all fundamental production and allocation decisions, and systematically transfers public wealth into private hands. Some leftists will suggest that socially-necessary work which is also rote or dangerous will be largely eliminated by technological advances and automation, leaving humanity with a lot more free time, and work that is, by definition, more creative and fulfilling. (Others imagine that the disappearance of technology will lead to the same thing.) And in terms of the work itself, with respect to both decision-making and divisions of labour, many progressive people will advocate some kind of workplace democracy and self-management, and suggest that a just economy will re-define the meaning of “work” and “job” in ways that enhance diversity and equality.
A good example of this is Marx’s famous assertion in The German Ideology that traditional divisions of labour will disappear, and individuals under “communism” will have the opportunity “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, [and] criticize after dinner.” Apart from being a vegetarian’s nightmare, Marx’s vision of work after capitalism, and his hope that work will be varied and more egalitarian (a mix of creative and rote tasks) is nice, but vague. Unfortunately, few Left theorists have felt the need to elaborate, and most have followed Marx’s lead (even the anarchists, by and large) in terms of concentrating on institutional analysis and critique of capitalism, rather than developing their vision of a non-capitalist economy.
The problem with these existing “visions” (or more accurately, glimpses) of a desirable economy and work is NOT that the values and sentiments expressed are bad, but that Left vision tends to stop there. It’s less a vision of the future than a series of hopeful assertions – assertions which touch on the KINDS of things we’d like to see, and give clues as to the kinds of values we hold, but don’t offer much in the way of practical details or actual institutions. We’re still left with more questions than answers, and unable to answer ordinary people who might justifiably be skeptical. Is it feasible? Does it “deliver the goods” without sacrificing the values we want to uphold? How much will people work? At what kinds of jobs? What will be the basis for remuneration? What will be my standard of living? How will social spending be conducted? Will there be trade? What about research and development? What about artistic pursuits? What about ecological concerns? How will conflicts be resolved in the workplace? What will my work day, or work week, look like? What will be decided in meetings, and conversely, how much room will there be for my own initiatives, creativity, and autonomy on the job? Are there any historical examples of what you’re talking about? And so on. Each question leads to two others, and while the vagueness, generality and ambiguity of Left “vision” can make for good polemic, it becomes less satisfactory when one begins to scratch the surface.
Some activists suggest that this is all we can hope for, or that this is all we should attempt to outline. They think that to elaborate a more detailed model is arrogant or authoritarian or simply utopian. According to this objection, either we can’t speculate about future details because only actual practice will reveal them. Or we ought not to devise alternative models because we don’t want to impose our pre-conceptions and ideas on the future. We don’t want to be “vanguardist” about imposing a particular vision or model on a larger movement.
While concerns about rigidity and vanguardism are important, I don’t think they follow from model-building and visionary thinking per se. First of all, I think people need vision, and concrete real world examples of that vision in practice, to inspire hope. It’s not enough to be motivated by a critique of the status quo, by outrage, by the purely negative. We also need a sense that desirable alternatives are possible, we also need the hope of something better, we need to be driven as much by positive values and examples.
But just as important, I think that different visions of a non-capitalist future directly affect the strategies we adopt today (and vice versa). In other words, the programmes and strategies we adopt TODAY, the structures of the movements and institutions we build TODAY, affect the direction we want to take, and inevitably shape our vision of a desirable future economy. If we’re good little materialists, we should be able to acknowledge this. The harder part is seeing the reverse: how our different visions of a desirable future economy might affect or shape our movements or institutions, and strategies, in the present. The harder part is seeing how differences over long-term economic vision might also reflect substantive differences over values, over what is wrong with capitalism, over what is fair, and over how people should work together.
Having said all this, it might seem strange that I’m not going to outline any alternative economic model in depth. But Adele [Oliveri] has already fleshed out the basics of the participatory economic model, focusing particularly on balanced job complexes, and the values and arguments behind them. This model is detailed in numerous books and articles available in their entirety online at the “Parecon Project” website (www.parecon.org). In my opinion, the important thing about the parecon model, and what makes it different from anything else out there, is that it not only asks what we want an economy to achieve – what values we want it to satisfy – using clear and accessible language for laypersons like myself. But it also systematically outlines institutions to fulfill the production, consumption, and allocation requirements of any economy. The model rejects both markets and central planning in favour of “participatory planning,” a third way that is not only based on workers’ self-management and collective ownership of the means of production, but also satisfies my own anarchist concerns about power, hierarchy, and freedom. More importantly for today’s discussion, the literature on the model also goes into detail about work, division of labour, and decision-making at the workplace level, using a range of enterprises (from book publishing to more complex institutions like airports) as examples. Anyone interested in economic democracy, or a liberatory socialist or anarchist vision, should at least be aware of this stuff.
What I would like to do today is discuss the application of these ideas in terms of day-to-day practice, drawing on my personal experience with workplace democracy at Mondragón Bookstore & Coffee House in Winnipeg. (The business is named after the Basque Mondragón cooperative network, but as will become apparent, the two have almost no similarity in terms of actual internal structure.) I’ll start by giving a quick overview of Mondragón’s workplace, the type of enterprise, as well as the internal structure, divisions of labour, and decision-making. Then, depending on time, I’d like to discuss some of the differences between the theory and practice of parecon, the complexities that arise whenever real people try to work together, the pros and cons of this specific workplace, the successes and failures, the way the institution has evolved over time, and the constraints of operating as an island in the midst of capitalism. I’d like to end by talking about the political relevance of such institutions, their place in the larger anti-capitalist struggle worldwide, the lessons that can be learned (from this, and other “experiments” such as the Basque system, Kerala, and so on), and discuss the transition to a full participatory economy.
II. Overview of Mondragón
Mondragón is a joint political bookstore and full vegetarian (vegan) restaurant. It’s also a community space, both in terms of being a “hang out” for activists, as well as in terms of being a space for public events, speakers, panels, social evenings, and so on. Since opening in 1996, Mondragón (and the larger “Autonomous Zone” building of which it is a part) has become a focal point for activism in Winnipeg, and has contributed to a larger community and culture of resistance in the city. Its existence and example has also inspired activists in other cities, across Canada and the United States, who have written wanting advice and information about starting up their own projects.
This is “what” Mondragón is, not “how” it operates. The politics of the business are reflected in numerous ways: in the choice of books it carries, the type of food, the criteria for selecting suppliers and products (for example, fair trade principles, organics, veganism, ecological concerns, and the labour conditions used to produce the inputs or goods that are needed), as well as the relationship with the larger community and activism, and of course, the internal structure of the business. Sometimes the different values and choices conflict with one another, or with the “bottom line” of the business, and it is the collective as a whole that decides (often after excruciating meetings or debates...) how to resolve such problems, without sacrificing fundamental principles or overall economic viability.
In terms of internal structure, job responsibilities at Mondragón are varied and often intellectually interesting, but also sometimes physically and emotionally demanding. Each collective member is part waiter, cook, dishwasher, business manager, bookbuyer, bookseller, personnel administrator, cashier, events coordinator, and janitor. The restaurant component of the business is more labour-intensive than the bookstore, and so fully three-quarters (or more) of each worker-member’s labour time is devoted to this side of the business – where the tasks are more physical, and pace is often more hectic.
While each worker has some specialized business area responsibilities (such as committee work, which generally requires greater training and continuity), all critical tasks are supposed to rotate over time. In this way, collective members share responsibility for tasks that are creative and empowering on the one hand, and rote or menial on the other – whether this is organizational “management,” inventory and ordering, accounts payable, book-keeping, food preparation, planning events and speakers, or running errands and performing miscellaneous chores and cleaning. Being a worker-run collective also requires time and energy spent on solving problems, or completing tasks that don’t fall under pre-existing job descriptions. There is no finite task list for each person. The “job” does not end, necessarily, with one’s scheduled shift. As equal partners or co-managers, workers often volunteer to do, or are expected to do, “whatever it takes” to keep the doors open, to keep the business running smoothly, to deal with emergencies or crises, and to enhance both the financial viability and work environment of the business.
Most of the day-to-day tasks performed at Mondragón are assigned to a particular shift, while the particular person filling each shift varies over time. Certain tasks are associated with bookstore shifts, others with cafe shifts, certain tasks are required by morning (opening) shifts, and others only by closing shifts. And there are also special shifts for food orders and menu development, as well as for book-keeping and accounts payable. On any given day, job tasks (and even length of time spent working) are not equal. But over the course of a three or four week period, each worker receives a roughly balanced set of shifts and committee work, designed to provide rough equity in terms of overall desirability and empowerment for each person. This is the theory at least – and what it means to have “balanced job complexes.”
In terms of decision-making, one of the goals of Mondragón is to create a work environment in which each worker-member can carry out their tasks without managerial supervision, and each is taught the necessary skills to make any day-to-day business decisions that might be required. Part of the reason behind this is to avoid a workplace characterized by unequal knowledge and divisions of labour, in which a single individual is considered indispensible, or might argue for special privileges on the basis of some monopoly on information or skills. In positive terms, this has to do with creating a workplace that empowers its members, fosters solidarity, and puts democracy and equality into practice.
The collective as a whole establishes and implements all business and personnel policies, specifies hiring goals and firing criteria, approves all job and committee parameters, interviews all new applicants, and conducts all worker-member evaluations. While a good deal of individual maturity and responsibility is expected (or at least hoped for!) from co-workers in terms of resolving grievances, the collective as a whole is also ultimately responsible for mediating and resolving major disputes and inter-personal conflicts. Ultimately, the basic goal of the workplace with respect to decision-making is to give each worker a good deal of latitude for self-management of their own work circumstances, but within the constraint of meeting collectively agreed upon priorities, tasks, and policies that affect the group as a whole. The idea is to develop a system that balances individual and collective needs in a way that it both fair and efficient.
Members of the collective are expected – as part of their “job complex” – to attend all regular general meetings in order to discuss and assign new or unusual job tasks, formulate and debate Mondragón policies, listen to committee or personal reports, discuss finances, evaluate the equity or efficacy of existing job complexes, propose changes to the internal structure or division of labour, as well as raise and resolve possible grievances. The time, length, and frequency of such meetings is determined by the collective, the needs of the business, possible crises, individual inclination, as well as the need for an informed and empowered staff to handle all contingencies. (You’ll note that these don’t necessarily coincide.) When Mondragón first opened its doors, and no one had a clue how to operate a business (much less an egalitarian one), we held meetings every single day after the business closed, debating everything from the most mundane (like the “proper” way to wash lettuce!), to the philosophical. Today, the collective meets once every second week for general meetings, although during moments of hiring, firing, or otherwise crisis situations, everyone is expected to participate in extra or emergency meetings. Finally, “participation” at such meetings doesn’t mean simple attendance. It means being attentive, as well as willing to articulate and argue for one’s opinions, when these are relevant to the day’s agenda, or the well-being of the workers and the business as a whole.
III. Parecon Theory vs. Practice
That gives you a rough idea of the nature of the business, as well as its internal structure, and some of the principles and goals behind it. But how does this translate into day-to-day practice? How does the theory mesh with the reality? What happens when real people, with different historical, class, gender, or cultural experiences (or privileges or biases or baggage) attempt to work together as equals? What have been the successes and failures of the business? How has it evolved over time, in an attempt to address some of the problems?
First, it should be pointed out that there is a big difference between the participatory economic (parecon) model and a single workplace – and so the dynamics at work in our one little business, operating within and underneath capitalism, are completely different than what they would be in a full “parecon” economy. For one, Mondragón has no relationship to many of the other proposed institutions outlined in the full model – from consumer and neighborhood councils, to participatory allocation institutions – because they simply don’t exist yet. At least, not in Winnipeg. The Mondragón experience is limited to one domain – namely, production – and even within this domain, it incorporates only two major components advanced by the model: 1) remuneration on the basis of effort, and 2) balanced job complexes (or “BJC’s” for short). Furthermore, in the model, BJC’s are not meant to be limited to one enterprise or workplace. Their effectiveness in terms of fostering greater equity, empowerment, and diversity throughout the economy is predicated on their being extended across enterprises, not just within them. For all these reasons, there are serious limits as to what the Mondragón example can even say about parecon theory. In other words, our successes and failures may or may not imply anything about the strengths or weaknesses of the model.
Having said this, I’d like to discuss the relationship (if any) between parecon theory and practice by focusing on a few key areas: 1) balanced job complexes; 2) skills, training, and empowerment; 3) remuneration on the basis of effort; 4) decision-making, non-hierarchy, and self-management; and 5) conflict resolution. There is a good deal of overlap in each area, and problems in one often relate to problems in another, or have similar explanations. However, in each case, I’ll note some of the achievements and limitations as I see them, and suggest some possible explanations and solutions for the latter.
Balanced Job Complexes:
Balanced job complexes within a single enterprise or workplace means that each worker has a roughly comparable set of jobs and job types, in terms of their overall desirability and empowerment effects.
This might not seem like a controversial goal, it might even sound attractive to everyone here, but it needs to be stressed because Left and progressive organizations, businesses, political parties and movements almost universally fail to challenge traditional divisions of labour – falling back far too easily, comfortably, uncritically on sexist, classist and hierarchical divisions. (Why that is, is a matter to be discussed elsewhere.)
Where the Left has historically recognized the inequities and problems associated with the separation of intellectual and manual labour, and between those who make the policies and decisions and those who carry them out, the solutions proposed to “overcome” the disparities have been few and not far-reaching. When they’ve actually thought about it, there are about three ways leftists have traditionally proposed to deal with unequal divisions of labour:
Pay people more for doing shitty work.
Don’t worry about those kinds of inequalities, because at least under socialism (or so it’s alleged) workers will have the right to vote for, and recall their managers. (This is what is often, unimaginatively, held up as the definition, and thus limit, of “economic democracy.”)
Attempt to rectify the imbalance by rotating jobs now and then, or by having those in privileged positions “dirty their hands” once in a while. (Thus, you have Maoist party cadres being sent to countryside to work with peasants, or you have Che Guevara cutting sugar cane. In each case, they return to their managerial or coordinator role, their greater privilege and status, their greater decision-making power, once the “exchange” is done – presumably with a newfound respect for the “ordinary” worker.) At any rate, not one of these “solutions” is satisfactory from a working class, and indeed libertarian socialist or anarchist perspective. Balanced job complexes are consistent with those perspectives, but they require a shift in the way we have been taught to think about, and define, jobs.
In any workplace, some tasks will be more intellectually stimulating, creative, rewarding, and empowering than others, and some will likely be more dull, repetitive, rote, dangerous, menial, and less desirable. One thing I want to note is that these two sets are not mutually exclusive: some empowering tasks are also boring as hell; some physical and menial tasks are, in turn, therapeutic or creative or rewarding in their own way. So, what is considered desirable or less desirable work is much more complicated than a simple “rote versus empowering” or “mental versus manual” dichotomy.
At any rate, leaving aside for the moment what constitutes desirable or undesirable work, if the undesirable tasks are necessary for the operation of the business, then basic fairness dictates that the burden should be divided equally. More creative and rewarding and desirable tasks can be (but need not be) divided on the basis of preference, so long as each person’s overall job package is roughly comparable in terms of empowerment effects, and so long as there’s a general agreement amongst the workers themselves about the equity and fairness of the different job packages. Parecon theory insists that work must be organized according to BJC’s, not only because it’s simply unfair to do otherwise. But also because the absence of BJC’s would have serious implications for workplace democracy and participatory decision-making. It simply doesn’t matter if everyone in a given workplace has a formal and equal right to vote! If some people have jobs that are empowering, and others that are exclusively deadening or menial, the former will necessarily dominate all conceptualization of policy options, all proposals for structural change, all discussion at meetings, and all decisions which affect the business and workers as a whole. The latter will listen, and perhaps debate proposals made by others, and even vote if such is required – but the very nature of their work package will limit their knowledge and skills, and thus, their ability to participate effectively as equal partners in the workplace.
It’s clear that there are numerous ways to actually implement balanced job complexes, and that there is a good deal of room for individual workplaces and collectives to experiment – without sacrificing core values. Variation based on type of industry, size of workplace, number of people involved, and genuine differences in personal preferences and strategies, is not only inevitable, but also desirable.
At Mondragón, job complexes have changed over the last six years, and continue to change, to satisfy the needs of the collective at the time, as well as to make them more balanced if and when inequities have been perceived. The “job complexes” are thus works in progress. The simple fact that workers can propose changes to, and alter, their own work circumstances in ways that they feel will improve the work itself, or increase fairness and efficiency, or otherwise make the jobs more enjoyable and the business more viable, is testament to the existence of a meaningful level of workplace democracy. In my opinion, this alone is an important achievement – given that many workplaces which call themselves “cooperatives” are very resistant to actual workers’ control, adopting lesser forms of participation which may “allow” for feedback, or some kind of representation, and restricted voting rights, but fall far short of self-management.
But in practice, it has been incredibly difficult to achieve that elusive, pure and equitable “balanced job complex” – particularly in areas that require greater levels of skill and training. For one thing, learning the range of skills required by both sides of the business (from cooking and baking, to computer software, to bookstore orders, to data entry procedures and accounts payable), necessarily means longer, perhaps even ongoing, training. In and of itself, this would not be a problem, if it weren’t for worker turn-over, and the loss of skills and knowledge and “historical memory” that this entails. For another, it is has been much more difficult to motivate people to push themselves to learn new skills, or to take on unfamiliar tasks, than one might expect. Even when there are no institutional obstacles blocking access to certain types of work (whether these are the so-called “managerial” or “administrative” tasks, or otherwise creative and empowering types of work), and even when the work itself is not overly complex (as in our case), it can be extremely difficult to get people to take the initiative to train themselves, or take advantage of existing training mechanisms.
One explanation for this is that Mondragón lacks a clear, effective, consistent training system (discussed in more detail later on). But in my experience, unless a “job complex” is very specific, and unless it becomes impossible to avoid certain types of tasks (and impossible to avoid the training required to do them), people tend to gravitate towards the kinds of work and tasks that they either enjoy, or already know how to do. It’s often easier to do the familiar, even if sometimes it’s repetitive or boring. And it’s not that learning new kinds of work, training and self-training, requires greater concentration per se. Part of the problem lies with the absence of a training system. Part of it is due to the fact that we’re not used to work situations in which individuals are supposed to “police themselves,” and in which individuals are allowed, encouraged, and expected to train themselves on “company time.” And part of it rests with the individual person, whose political sensibilities don’t necessarily override their own laziness.
So, while most tasks required by the business are shared evenly, and while every worker does have a job complex that includes elements of cooking, cashier work, dishwashing, cleaning, book orders, not to mention participation at meetings, there are continuous problems with balancing some of the so-called “managerial” roles. Particularly difficult to balance has been work related to the following:
conceptualization of structural alternatives to address problems or omissions (rather than simply noting problems and raising grievances);
holding co-workers accountable (which we have discovered is a really rote task that no one wants to do);
representation of the business or its politics (from writing pamphlets or other collective literature, to conducting interviews and workshops, as well as public speaking related to the business, or activism more broadly); and
general trouble-shooting or problem-solving required by the business on a day-to-day basis. Informal hierarchies and informal inequities in the division of labour are more difficult to address, and sometimes more difficult to even see, than formal ones. Some of these have to do with inevitable differences between experienced and new workers, and worker turn-over usually means losing someone with key skills and “historical memory,” and starting from scratch with someone new. Some of these inequities have to do with people becoming too comfortable in their roles, or with a “natural” gravitation towards one’s preferences. And some have to do with feeling (rightly or wrongly) that inequities in balancing are too difficult to change, or that even articulating them will lead to personal conflicts. In practice, some people prefer to remain silent about grievances or perceived inequities, for fear of jeopardizing relationships or friendships with co-workers, or because they feel that the potential conflict with a co-worker will create a more negative work environment than the continuation of the inequity or grievance itself.
The point is that structures designed to equalize skills and knowledge do not automatically do so, and even people who agree that this should be a goal may find, in practice, that their own preferences or comfort collides with their politics. There is no single answer for overcoming disparities in job complexes, and for rectifying formal or informal hierarchies as they arise. As always, a combination of structural fine-tuning and holding individual co-workers accountable needs to be considered. Rather than blaming all the inequities or problems within their workplace on either some “hegemonic” structure beyond their control, or on individuals who are assumed to be usurping power or neglecting responsibilities, workers’ collectives need to be open to self-criticism and proposals which take into account both kinds of responsibility. There is a reciprocal relationship between workplace structure and individual behaviour, and even if it is personally gratifying to blame one or the other for our problems, it’s not necessarily productive in terms of addressing real people and correcting real inequities.
Even when there are no institutional obstacles blocking access to certain types of work – and even when there is a genuine openness to discussing problems, to listening to alternatives, and to implementing structural or policy changes to address inequities – the goal of achieving fully balanced job complexes is much easier said than done. Ultimately, a “pure” balanced job complex is perhaps best viewed as an endless horizon, towards which we are always moving, always refining our practices, but never quite reaching.
Skills, training, and empowerment
Closely related to the achievement of balanced job complexes is the question of skills, training, and empowerment. People simply cannot have balanced job complexes if they don’t have the training and skills required to perform any or all of the empowering or creative tasks in their workplace. Of course, there is a big difference between training conducted by individuals for and within a single workplace, and training conducted by an entire workforce across an entire economy. In a large, established participatory economy, individuals will likely be able to train and work in areas according to broad preferences, so long as their overall job package is roughly comparable (in terms of desirability and empowerment) to the social average. As such, people will more likely train for long-term work in primary areas they enjoy, which may in some sense be considered a career or vocation, balanced by work in other secondary or tertiary areas which they may dislike but which rounds out their overall job complex. As such, “turn-over” in a participatory economy will likely be less prevalent, and motivated by different factors, than turn-over in a capitalist economy.
Within capitalism individuals are forced by economic necessity to find whatever work is available, and often choose to apply for work on the basis of minimizing undesirable work circumstances, especially if they feel they cannot find employment which satisfies their actual interests or preferences. Problems of training, skill acquisition, empowerment, and worker turn-over – even within workplaces employing parecon principles – must be understood in this restricted context. Balanced job complexes within a particular business increase diversity of the tasks performed, and can thus reduce repetition and boredom, but they do not change the fundamental nature of the work required. At Mondragón, for example, regardless of how equitable the internal division of labour, the majority of work is still – by definition – retail, service-oriented work. More than this, it has been difficult to generate sufficient revenues to keep the doors open, let alone raise wages beyond the bare (legal) minimum, or develop a comprehensive worker benefits package. As such, and even though Mondragón has a degree of job security unheard of in the current neo-liberal climate, it has nevertheless been difficult to attract, and keep workers in any long-term sense. Turn-over has been comparable, perhaps even better than industry norms, but still far more of a problem than was originally expected. Few people (and activists are no exception) envision or aspire to a life of full-time, retail, restaurant work – even if that workplace advocates, or puts into practice, many of their deeply-held political principles.
For both the founders of Mondragón, and subsequent long-term, committed collective members who have worked and remain there, this has been a hard truth to come to accept. There is a mistaken assumption (but maybe understandable hope) that anyone who shares the basic vision and politics of a project will remain committed to it for some significant time period: two years, five years, maybe ten. (Certainly we never expected some people to leave after only two weeks, two months, or six months, given the rigorous nature of our hiring process!) At Mondragón we assumed (correctly) that training was a heavy investment in workers, and would be ongoing. But we also hoped that it would pay off in the long-term, because people would remain. We underestimated the extent of turn-over, and the different motivations and desires of even the most politically-conscious people for wanting to work at Mondragón in the first place, and then in some cases for wanting to quit. Most of all, we underestimated the significance of the loss of historical, institutional, collective memory, as well as skills, that turn-over necessarily entails – particularly if the person leaving has been a long-term, committed collective member.
Parecon theory never suggests that training during any period of transition will be easy, that people’s politics will automatically translate into long-term commitment (or that it should), or that turn-over will be a non-issue. But balanced job complexes, almost by definition, require greater training of each person in a given workplace, than training each person to do a category of work ranked by desirability and empowerment (i.e., the norm for capitalism). The parecon model suggests that “the mutually enforcing benefits of knowing more about each type of work, the enrichment that comes from having diverse responsibilities, and the increase in morale that accompanies understanding the whole … will more than offset these additional training costs.” (Looking Forward, p.35). These costs may not be a problem in a full-blown participatory economy, but they are perhaps more of a problem for parecon-inspired businesses operating within capitalism than one might expect. Turn-over makes this kind of broad, balanced training even harder on parecon-inspired businesses than regular capitalist ones (which either don’t need to bother, or which pass on the expense of training to the individual worker – and then call it “ambition.”) The kind of investment in worker skills development that BJC’s require may be much less efficient in this transitional context (in terms of cost and long-term benefit) than one would hope – at least until or unless the workplace is able to address the problem of turn-over.
This is by no means an argument for abandoning such training, or avoiding balanced job complexes. But it needs to be acknowledged as one more in a long line of financial constraints imposed on alternative businesses, and that it is a political and collective choice to ignore the added costs, in favour of other values or workplace goals. (This political choice to assume extra financial burdens – which no capitalist business would voluntarily entertain – is a common experience among alternative, progressive businesses and institutions, and goes well beyond training for balanced job complexes. For example, spending more for fair trade, organic, union-made, or non-sweatshop goods consumed by the business, could translate directly into lower net revenues, and thus lower overall wages. But in any case, it is a collective decision, taking into account qualitative information beyond the market cost, which workers must impose on themselves during any period of transition.)
Beyond the question of added costs, and the problem of turn-over, training in any non-hierarchical workplace has other dimensions and difficulties. Mondragón has tried to formalize its training process, and incorporate things like checklists and training “buddies” for new workers, but in practice, training has remained fairly ad hoc, and often left to individual initiative. The absence of a clear, consistent, transparent training system has been a big problem, but doing the work to establish a system that will help facilitate training in the future, and in fact, doing any kind of conceptualizing and system-building, routinely gets put on the back burner. Sometimes, though not always, this is for understandable reasons. People are stressed about immediate work in the present (getting a produce order in on time, getting the doors open on time, helping the customer who’s standing right there, and so on). New and veteran collective members are expected to take initiative in terms of their own training, and veteran members can be impatient when it comes to training new people – at least, if they are simultaneously doing their own work in a retail, restaurant context, and the pace is fast. Impatience can lead to veteran workers doing work for newer workers – rather than showing them how to do it themselves – simply because it’s quicker, or there are deadlines, or they’re tired and want to go home. Making the time and effort to arrange proper training workshops for those who need or want them, or for putting together training guidebooks for ongoing reference, has been a constant battle.
As with the achievement of balanced job complexes, training difficulties in a non-hierarchical workplace reflect a constant tension between individual initiative and collective responsibility, between individual self-motivation and peer review and oversight. Mondragón has by no means come close to solving these problems. Recognizing the shortcomings, and recognizing the importance of establishing a formal, clear and comprehensive training system, is the easy part. Remuneration on the basis of effort
Before discussing remuneration, and the problems of evaluating effort in practice, I’d like to address the concern of some activists that payment for labour necessarily corrupts it. While I recognize the importance of volunteer work on a range of issues, I think that making it a principle, or worse, a litmus test for what constitutes “untainted” labour, is a mistake and an obstacle to building self-sustaining and growing infrastructure for the Left. Income is not the same thing as money, money is not the same thing as capitalism, and consumption is not the same thing as excess. Yet many activists have a tendency to conflate these things, and believe that the only way to transcend the corruption and greed and privilege and excess of capitalism is to remove oneself completely from the so-called “money economy.”
However, having an income is simply another way of saying you have a right to consume a portion of the social pie. There’s nothing inherently evil about this. Everyone needs to eat, acquire new clothes, stay warm in winter, have access to health care or day care, and so on – and even beyond the basic biological requirements, we have other social and intellectual needs. We want to learn, read books, enjoy or make music, drink beer, watch movies, maybe even travel to other parts of the world (heaven forbid!). The question is not “to consume or not to consume” – as we are told by some advocates of “Buy Nothing Day” – but rather under what conditions, who decides what is produced, what are the social and ecological implications, and what should be the basis for rewarding work and setting income?
There is a whole range of things that an economy, or workplace, could reward. We could pay people on the basis of job type or job performed, on the basis of ownership rights or investment, on the basis of gender, age or ethnicity, on the basis of some perceived talent, some level of education or training or seniority attained, or on the basis of some quantitative output. All of these are used to some extent under capitalism and markets, although actual income is affected (upwards or downwards) by the relative bargaining power of workers, managers, and owners – sometimes called “class war.” But it seems clear to me that not one of these criteria for pay has any moral basis whatsoever.
What are the alternatives? Can we imagine an economy in which the sole basis for receiving income and benefits is desire or need? Sounds wonderful, but could reward really be divorced from effort and obligation, from work itself? Short of sci-fi fantasies about pure automation, in which every human need is provided for by robots and “replicators” – and presumably, in which the robots repair themselves – I doubt it. Not even Star Trek entertains this possibility, which in my opinion would be undesirable, even if technically feasible. Marx was more realistic: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Even though he argues that reward should be based on need, he ties this directly to ability, and by implication to work and sacrifice. It’s a very powerful sentiment, even if its meaning and application are open to different interpretations.
The parecon model proposes that we ought to reward people equal pay for equal effort, in part because effort is one of the few things affecting performance over which people have exclusive control. This is not the same thing as rewarding people on the basis of needs alone, although in any just society (parecon included), there would have to be provisions or exceptions based on need (for dependents, sick and injured, and others who may be unable to work at socially-average job complexes, or unable to work at all). Leaving aside for the moment the question of quantifying and evaluating effort (and who or what is best situated to do it), it seems clear to me that remuneration on the basis of effort satisfies our desires not just for equity, but also for efficiency. (Traditional capitalist norms satisfy neither principle, despite the rhetoric about “equal opportunity” and “market efficiency.”) Payment on the basis of effort would allow some variations in total pay based on differential effort, and it would allow a more fair and flexible trade-off between income (or consumption rights) on the one hand, and leisure time on the other.
Parecon theory assumes that individual workers will be motivated to work, in part because they themselves will have had a direct say over setting work norms and priorities, and in part because people will share the basic politics and values underlying the entire social and economic order. It also assumes that they will be motivated because their income will be directly tied to something they can actually control (i.e., personal effort). If they work more or harder, they’ll get more. If they work less, they’ll get less. Finally, it assumes that motivation will also come from being held accountable by one’s own co-workers, through a mechanism of peer review and effort ratings (which will be more or less formal depending on the particular workplace and workers’ councils).
In a period of transition, where isolated workplaces attempt to implement parecon-inspired norms in the midst of capitalism, each and every one of these factors can and does influence worker motivation, but there are added complexities and constraints. People may share the politics, values, and vision of the workplace, but there are always different levels of commitment, and different understandings as to what constitutes the acceptable “average” effort for the workplace, or the “minimum” work expectations. Clarity and communication related to job responsibilities and expectations is obviously critical. But even beyond establishing clear norms and expectations regarding average effort, the role of peer review and effort rating is more problematic in a transition period than perhaps suggested by the model.
Alternative workplaces operating within capitalism are almost by definition marginal. Most struggle merely to survive with their principles intact, and paying workers a minimum “living wage” – while far from what we aspire to – is nevertheless a victory in the current context. (Many valuable community institutions cannot afford to pay anyone.) Evaluation of effort, and adjustments (up or down) to a worker’s already marginal income, is quite a different matter from the situation in a full participatory economy. The stakes are much higher. The consequences of being assessed negatively are potentially serious, threatening one’s ability to pay rent or buy groceries, and one’s co-workers know this. Furthermore, it’s quite common for people working in alternative, progressive situations (including collective workplaces) to be friends – and to develop bonds far beyond the basic, everyday empathy one might feel for a co-worker. Finally, people committed to building parecon-based institutions are more often than not committed opponents of authority and hierarchy, who instinctively (or politically) despise the notion of monitoring, evaluating, or “policing” one’s co-workers and comrades. Even if they understand, in theory, that there is no better mechanism or body able to do so, and believe that it is important to have “checks” against “free riders,” in practice, they find the task reprehensible.
All of these things make the evaluation and rating of co-workers’ effort much more problematic in practice. Even if they think the theory makes sense, most people don’t want to do it in practice – at least, not in any systematic, rigid, or precise manner. At best, people consider it a “rote” task to hold others accountable or to monitor their co-workers. At worst, they find that attempting precision in the realm of peer review is socially or politically offensive (some mistakenly call it “authoritarian”), but in any case, they feel it’s not at all conducive to a harmonious work environment. I have serious doubts that many workers’ collectives would choose to implement an effort rating system with the degree of formality and precision suggested (albeit as one extreme) by the model. This doesn’t mean that anything goes. At Mondragón, formal peer review and negative repercussions arise, but only as a consequence of major work deficiencies, and consistent patterns of unacceptable behaviour or job shirking. In “normal” situations, if Mondragón is any indication, there will likely be differences in effort and remuneration that are unfair. Some people will work harder than others, without getting extra pay or acknowledgement. Some people will occasionally shirk duties and “get away with it,” with or without their co-workers’ knowledge. But I think most people, in practice, are willing to accept a little imperfection, perhaps even a lot, if it means the overall work environment is more welcoming and supportive, and relations with one’s co-workers remain good.
Another added complexity of remunerating on the basis of effort – specifically during periods of transition – is what happens outside the otherwise balanced, collective, pareconish island. Differences in workers’ class and cultural backgrounds, gender, levels of education, individual inclinations and histories, and a myriad of other factors (including luck in the genetic “lottery”), all can play a role in determining what each worker needs to do in order to survive. They all can play a role in shaping what each worker sees as his or her options. If two people work in a parecon workplace, and internally relate to one another as equals, and internally both receive the same rate of pay, but outside come from very different class backgrounds, then there will be inevitably different pressures upon them. They may perceive different options available for them to pursue, and different constraints upon them, and due to outside income differentials, there will be power differentials that can be brought to bear inside the workplace.
For example, if one worker is a landed immigrant with no money, no secondary education, and few skilled employment opportunities outside the parecon collective, while the other worker has investments that earn her a steady income regardless of labour, then paying these two workers equal pay for equal effort inside the collective environment is, well, nice. But it obscures very real class differences, and makes overall remuneration on the basis of effort problematic, if not impossible.
If one worker can put in a relaxing work week of 20 hours, and then spend their remaining time doing other forms of activism, going to meetings, reading Howard Zinn, playing guitar, or even doing some high-paying, empowering contract work on the side. But the other worker has to work full-time and still pick up a second job. Then, for starters, there is no actual economic equality, and remuneration on the basis of effort is an agreed-upon myth. It’s a kind of laboratory experiment that “succeeds” inside the parecon workplace, but which fails to account for many real-world variables. But more than this, the differential power that can be brought to bear inside the otherwise equal collective workplace should be apparent. One worker has a power that comes from the ability to refuse work. They also have a power that comes from being less tired and deadened by overwork. They have more time to read, and think, and debate, and will have a greater inclination and ability to conceptualize policy options or propose alternative structures for the parecon workplace – not due some innate capacity that the other worker lacks, but due to their different life and work circumstances. They can also pretend that when they volunteer to do work, above and beyond the average expected for the workplace, or above and beyond what they themselves expect to get paid for, then it means their overall effort is greater, and that they’re somehow more “committed” to the workplace or politics or principles.
The other worker actually works harder. But much of their effort takes the form of necessary work outside the participatory collective environment, and is therefore not considered relevant to the calculus. Amazingly, not many leftists consider it relevant to the calculus, even ones who agree with the values and aims of parecon. Why, they ask, should our workplace reward someone for work they do elsewhere? Or, the flip side of this, why should our workplace penalize someone for the greater income they make elsewhere – even if that income derives from the “luck” of birth or class privilege? My point in all this is not that it shouldn’t be relevant. But few activists, socialists, anarchists, and even pareconists think it’s something that can be addressed today, right now, within and beyond our own institutions. No workers’ collective, trying to survive in the midst of capitalism, is likely to acknowledge outside effort in the form of actual compensation. Few individuals are willing to work for less or no pay, voluntarily, to offset their own privilege. (I’m not talking about the occasional pro bono work here, I’m talking about altering one’s day-to-day work circumstances.) Leftists are really good at acknowledging the fact of such disparities, we even spend a lot of time complaining or moralizing about them. We insist they won’t exist in the future economy we aspire to create. But we either don’t know how to deal with such class (and related effort) disparities in the present, or we don’t think they can be addressed, or we don’t think they ought to be addressed (again, conveniently, “in the present”).
The latter belief is the hardest to overcome, and speaks to one of the main problems of transition from capitalism to a participatory economy – namely, our seemingly endless capacity to rationalize material self-interest and even class privilege as something “deserved.” I’m in no way suggesting that material interest is a problem per se. A good economy will need to satisfy material, and many other kinds of human needs. Something else is at work. Even leftists, who in theory aspire to a future egalitarian economy and classless society, almost universally insist that any income they earn today (whether it is the result of inheritance, or the result of a high-status, cushy job, or the result of royalties from some book they’ve written or music they’ve made, or some other idea or institution that happens to do well in the market, parecon-inspired or otherwise) is something they’ve earned and deserve, or if not earned, is nevertheless something that they alone have the legal and moral right to “dispose of.” They put in the work, they underwent the training or education, they came up with the idea, they made the initial sacrifices (financial or labour), and therefore they deserve to reap the market benefits – or so the argument goes. Often, this rationalization is even expressed in the language of workers’ rights, as in the slogan “labour is entitled to all it creates.” Left professors call themselves “intellectual workers,” obscuring the fact that they are part of a managerial, coordinator class below true capitalists, but far above and beyond the experience of ordinary workers. They insist upon the right to dispose of their six-digit salary as something “earned” through years of hard work, and the idea of redistributing some of this income to progressive individuals or institutions is seen as their own personal “charity” – an example of their “generosity” – rather than a “correction” of systematic market mis-valuation of prices and labour.
But regardless of the example, this insistence that whatever one “earns” under the market is “deserved,” has more to do with reproducing capitalist values, work relations and principles of remuneration, than subverting them. It obscures the fact that most workers under capitalism deserve more income than the market allocates, while a good deal of what generates high income (investments, ownership, royalties, relatively desirable and empowering careers) deserve a lot less remuneration – or in some cases, none at all.
How do we begin to address such disparities, and move towards a parecon future, if leftists themselves won’t question the privileges they sometimes attain under capitalism? How can we talk about rewarding work on the basis of effort and sacrifice in a single parecon workplace, without discussing measures to overcome class and work disparities that exist between individual workers outside the collective, and without simultaneously trying to overcome market-induced disparities between different professions and parecon institutions themselves? I don’t attempt, or have time, to address these problems here in any depth, though I see them as fundamental to any discussion of transition to parecon. But it seems clear to me that some kind of conscious redistribution (or parecon-inspired allocation), running counter to our own (exclusively) individual self-interest and counter to market imperatives, needs to take place. Individuals and institutions of relative privilege under the market – either in terms of income, or work circumstances, or both – need to shift income to those who are worse off, to those whose labour is under-valued by the market, or to those who expend greater effort and make greater sacrifices to produce the things we value. This is what we claim to aspire to – for the entire economy, down the road. But we need to begin thinking of ways to correct the terrible mis-valuations of the market within, and between, our own alternative institutions today. We need to begin to question our own personal privileges, and think of ways to re-distribute income in ways that are fair, and will help strengthen or expand the network of alternative institutions that exists right now. It’s not about “charity” work. It’s not about “donating” to whichever radical organization one feels affinity towards, and thereby easing one’s conscience. It’s about coming up with our own criteria for correcting the mis-allocation of resources and mis-valuation of labour that occurs under capitalism – right now. Until we resolve some of these disparities, any attempt to pay people for equal effort within a single workplace will necessarily be partial under capitalism.
Finally, problems with motivating workers, problems with productivity and accountability, problems with workers taking initiative and setting their own standards and pace of work, have led some of Mondragón’s own collective members to question the effectiveness of rewarding work on the basis of effort. They see areas of work that are consistently neglected, they see disparities in terms of the labour that different co-workers are willing to conduct, they see critical tasks getting performed poorly or not at all, they see some people treating the workplace like they are full partners (keeping the “big picture” in mind, doing “extra” tasks, trouble-shooting as needed), while others often act like employees (shirking duties, foot-dragging, remaining silent about business direction and political vision – except insofar as it might affect their immediate work circumstances). In my opinion, these are all serious problems which any collective needs to face and resolve. But they are not a consequence of attempting to reward people for effort – as opposed to rewarding people for something seemingly more tangible, such as productivity and desired outcomes. In my opinion, these problems arise in part because Mondragón has failed to actually implement the principle – not because the principle fails. Mondragón, strictly speaking, does not reward people on the basis of effort. It tries to approximate such a principle. It pays people equal pay for equal hours shifted, and over time, the kinds of work performed by each worker is roughly balanced with every other worker. But Mondragón leaves some tasks to individuals (who often perform unequal non-shifted “volunteer” work), and more importantly, workers’ relative efforts on and off shift are not weighed and evaluated in any strict sense. Poor performance or under-average effort is not penalized, unless it becomes a systematic pattern and problem that others become unwilling to further tolerate. (Occasionally, people mark themselves off a certain number of paid hours, on a kind of honour system, if they feel they have worked significantly less hard than expected while on shift. Or they will request extra paid hours to accomplish some task necessary for the business. But this is fairly informal and rare.) Paying people equal pay for equal effort would involve holding one’s co-workers accountable for, say, getting things done at agreed-upon times. It would involve more systematic judgment and evaluation of effort on and off shift, than actually happens at Mondragón, precisely because many are reluctant to do it. And it would probably involve acknowledging, and attempting to mitigate or correct, some of the class and income disparities among collective members which operate outside the workplace.
Decision-making, non-hierarchy, and self-management
The participatory economic model is based on the assumption that workers, when given the chance, not only have the capacity to govern their own work circumstances, to make the necessary business decisions that affect their lives, to participate in collective meetings and decision-making processes, and to exercise effective self-management – but they will be inspired to do so. Working with one’s co-workers, as equals, in a non-hierarchical environment, in which the benefits and burdens of work are shared equally, is not only possible, but more desirable. According to this view, workers will thrive under such circumstances, take initiatives, and teach themselves and others the skills necessary to enjoy a creative, empowering, and harmonious work environment. It is also often assumed, or hoped, that workers will likely be more motivated, and more productive than under capitalism, where their true interests are subverted, their creative energies curbed, and the very nature and purpose of their work is often pointless, dehumanizing, and directed towards the profits of the few.
In practice, however, such assumptions and hopes are often difficult to sustain – and people who have had extensive involvement and experience working in collective institutions are well aware of the gap between hope and reality, between what might be possible in a new economy and what seems to occur in our own experiments. No, I am not suggesting that Ayn Rand was right about “human nature,” and that workers need managers to keep them in line. But the difference in behaviour, attitude, participation, effort, politics, and commitment between individuals involved in alternative workplaces and collectives – operating right now within capitalism – is often more disappointing than one would hope. How much of this has to do with structural problems or failures of vision in the particular workplace, how much has to do with individuals, how much has to do with problems of hiring in the first place, or inadequacies of training, or lack of clarity of job descriptions or expectations, or how much has to do with the many constraints of operating under capitalism, and the personal baggage we bring from our otherwise hierarchical backgrounds and lives – is not easy to determine. But for whatever reason, building a workplace without formal and informal hierarchies, in which workers manage their own affairs, take their own initiatives, set their own collective norms regarding pace and work expectations, in which empowering and rote tasks are balanced, and in which workers effectively participate as equals in the overall decision-making process of the business – is much easier said than done. Explaining why different people respond to opportunities to build, or work within, such a workplace in such radically-different ways, seems almost impossible. But arguably, it’s critical to overcoming many of the problems such institutions face, and critical to any strategy of transition to a participatory economy.
At Mondragón there were often jokes between collective members – indicative of a kind of unofficial “understanding” that things were not equal in practice – about the gap between “partners” and “staff.” A lot of bitterness arose from the sense by some that others were not “committed” enough to the workplace or politics, or were simply lazy. The flip side to this was the sense by some that others (typically more veteran members) act like managers, or won’t relinquish certain tasks, or wield disproportionate influence over decision-making, policies, and work circumstances. These perceptions, and in some cases realities, are hard things to change, even when they’re recognized as problems which need to be addressed.
One example of this relates specifically to participation at meetings. Just because there are no formal barriers preventing participation, doesn’t mean the particular workplace or collective is conducive to it, doesn’t mean people are welcoming of disagreement and debate, and doesn’t mean people are respectful towards their co-workers when they do express opinions or make suggestions. Just because there are no formal barriers barring participation, and even if one’s co-workers are generally respectful during discussion, doesn’t mean there aren’t all kinds of class, gender, and cultural factors at work which shape people’s levels of comfort, and influence their ability or confidence to participate in meetings, to articulate their views, and so on. Of course, there are things that a workers’ collective can do to try to compensate for such things, and to try to make meetings more welcoming, and participation more widespread. There are always ways to better approximate the goal of having decision-making input in proportion to the degree one is affected. But the best structure, and most welcoming environment for meetings, does not automatically eliminate some people’s fears of speaking in front of groups, their reluctance to defend a minority or unpopular position, or their worries about personal conflicts with co-workers or friends.
I still believe that the goals of non-hierarchy and effective self-management are achievable, desirable, and realistic, even in the midst of capitalism. To believe otherwise is an argument for either corporate or Leninist structures on the one hand, or total apathy on the other. (Unfortunately, many of the people who become frustrated or disillusioned by their experience with this or that collective workplace or organization, become advocates of traditional corporate business structures, ownership relations, and hierarchy, or they drop out of activism altogether – or both.) But we will not achieve our goals by obscuring the difficulties and problems that arise in our own alternative institutions, by glossing over the limitations and failures of our collective experiences. The literature on parecon does not address the issue of transition in any serious depth. It assumes that the transition will be difficult, that there will be a lot of baggage to deal with, and it assumes that reactionary resistance to (and violence directed against) our efforts will grow in proportion to our own successes, in proportion to elite perceptions that we constitute a “threat.” The real difficulty, it seems to me, is this: How do we be honest (and sometimes brutal) in our self-criticism, so that we can learn from our own successes and mistakes, so that we can continue to revise our theories and strategies in light of new experience – and still paint a picture of our collective experiences which inspires hope, generates interest, and more importantly, motivates new people to incorporate parecon values and principles into their own lives and work circumstances? It’s not just about the language we use to describe our vision and alternative examples, though language and representation is also important. The examples themselves must be attractive – materially, politically, socially – in order to generate excitement, inspire hope, motivate new people, and keep existing supporters from getting disillusioned or burned out.
Parecon aspires to an economy and type of workplace which “promotes social ties and empathy rather than having an antisocial effect.” (Albert, Parecon: Life After Capitalism, p. 158). But the model says very little about a critical component of any workplace, which relates directly to solidarity, as well as non-hierarchical decision-making and self-management – namely, interpersonal conflicts. In Parecon: Life After Capitalism, Albert states that “Of course there are disagreements and personality clashes. But surely these are more manageable once demeaning hierarchy has been eliminated.” (p. 196). Albert’s faith in the ability of sensible, mature people to raise and resolve grievances, as equals, is reflected in such statements, and perhaps more tellingly reflected in the absence of any systematic treatment of grievances and conflict-resolution in the model. But in my opinion, it is not at all obvious that interpersonal conflicts between co-workers will be “more manageable” without hierarchy. My experience at Mondragón, in many ways, suggests the opposite. Obviously, there are critical differences between a participatory economy, and a parecon-inspired workplace struggling within capitalism. Mondragón has eliminated formal hierarchy in terms of its decision-making and division of labour, but it still needs to address many informal ones. But regardless of the facts, it’s important to point out that conflicts and personality clashes do not need to be “more manageable” in order to defend a parecon vision – so long as they aren’t debilitating, so long as people aren’t constantly miserable, and so long as they do not sacrifice the other values and goals we want.
In my experience, interpersonal conflicts within egalitarian collectives are vastly more prevalent and difficult to address than most people think or hope. Apart from our complete lack of business experience and knowledge when Mondragón first started up, I would argue that the nature and long-term threat of interpersonal conflicts was one of the things we most under-estimated, were most surprised by, and were least prepared to deal with. Why that is, and how different things might be between our present difficulties under capitalism and a long-established parecon, is not intuitively obvious. No doubt there are forces which shape and constrain conflict resolution under capitalism, including within our own alternative institutions, which may be absent in a future participatory economy. For starters, none of us has been raised, right now, to deal with one another as equals. We need to acknowledge that there are actually skills and training involved to deal with one another openly, with respect, to cut through the baggage of our classist, racist, sexist socialization, to transcend the harmful elements of our own pride and egos, and so on. Acknowledging this is not the same thing as resolving it.
But certain manifestations of interpersonal conflicts may also be suppressed under traditional corporate, top-down structures, or channeled into various anti-social aspirations and behaviours, and most people’s voices and opinions are silenced. This is hardly meant as a defence of hierarchy as a means of conflict resolution. I am merely suggesting that when we eliminate hierarchies within the workplace, we unleash a whole lot of forces which we have not been prepared or socialized to handle, and that conflicts during such periods of transition are not only inevitable, but possibly exacerbated by our own inexperience.
Will such conflicts, and our ability to handle them be different under a fully-developed parecon? No question. Material pressures and sources of stress will be qualitatively different. We will have been raised, not just in our workplaces, but presumably also in our families, schools, communities, relationships with friends and neighbours, and in our larger affiliations with society or nation or “world community” (however defined), to interact with one another in qualitatively different ways. We will have been trained to be equals, instead of givers or takers of orders. The literature on parecon never suggests that conflicts will disappear. But I doubt very much that they will be as easily “managed,” even after capitalism, as Albert & Hahnel seem to suggest. I think that interpersonal conflicts may become much larger parts of our daily lives and work than we currently experience. (Other things, which currently pre-occupy our minds and consume our energies, may disappear or become much less time-consuming.) I think they will be qualitatively different, in both source and resolution, but not necessarily less time-consuming or “more manageable.” Certainly today, under capitalism, trying to build our own alternatives which foster different values and social relations, it’s hard to under-estimate the prevalence, importance and dangers of such conflicts, let alone envision a society in which they are negligible or easily “managed.”
The important point in all this, in my opinion, relates to the earlier discussion of language and representation when it comes to parecon vision and practice. There is an inherent tension between wanting to generate “excitement” and interest in parecon values and vision, and wanting to present a picture which minimizes problems, or exaggerates the ease with which they will be resolved. In my own speaking and writing about parecon, and talking about the experiences of Mondragón as a kind of “case study,” this has always been an issue. Whether we’re talking about the ease with which job complexes can be balanced, or asserting our faith in workers to manage their own affairs, set their own pace, take initiatives, and motivate themselves, or whether we’re talking about the relative ease and maturity with which workers will raise grievances and resolve personal conflicts – we want things to be easier than they are. But presenting a picture which is less than accurate, or which implies that things will be easier, more manageable, less stress-free in our own alternative workplaces, can contribute to the very disillusionment, burnout, and personal conflicts we want to avoid. This is by no means the only source of bitterness and disagreement inside our own institutions, it’s not the only factor contributing to turn-over, but it’s certainly one way that we contribute to our own unrealistic expectations. There will always be room for improvement, there will always be stressful, difficult, draining, personal conflicts, and we will often handle them less-well than we should. Unrealistic expectations about a “conflict-free” (or easily managed) work environment, or unrealistic expectations about a “harmonious family” of activists, happily marching towards egalitarian “paradise,” are simply a fast road to burnout and despair.
IV. Constraints of Capitalism
Not all of the problems at Mondragón can be attributed to the fact that it’s a small “alternative” island in the midst of a capitalist ocean. Mondragón has its own share of structural problems, its own failures of vision, and one can rarely over-estimate the potential for inter-personal conflicts to destroy otherwise positive projects and alternatives. None of us has been socialized to deal with one another as equals. Having spent our entire lives learning to give or take orders, and to submit to a hierarchy (in the family, school, workplace, state, and often through religion), the difficulty of learning to resolve conflicts openly, as equals, should never be under-estimated. And we all, inevitably, bring lots of baggage from the hierarchical, competitive, sexist, homophobic, ageist, classist and racist institutions which together make up the air we breathe. So yes, things will be difficult, and we should expect that there will always be room for improvement of our own internal structures and practices, social relations, room for self-criticism, and so on.
But certainly the constraints of operating within capitalism are huge. The market inevitably mis-values certain industries and services, certain kinds of labour, not to mention mis-values, and attempts to ridicule, undermine, co-opt, or crush any kind of dissent or any organization, movement, or individual that seeks to abolish capitalism. These constraints take many forms, but are perhaps most strongly felt by alternative businesses in terms of the “bottom line.” In alternative institutions within a market system, there’s an inevitable conflict between politics, values, and integrity on the one hand, and the “bottom line” on the other. At Mondragón, this can be seen in the choices made about suppliers and various inputs required by the business. Where does the coffee come from? Is the produce organic? Where, and under what labour conditions, were the Che Guevara or Propagandhi t-shirts made? It can cost more to avoid pesticides in your food, to avoid items made in sweatshops, and to support products and cooperatives made by union labour or cooperative labour, or to support “fair trade” principles, and so on. Sometimes the ethical thing doesn’t cost more under capitalism, but these are parameters that no regular business or corporation is likely to accept, and ones which can help to keep alternative and left movements and businesses financially marginal.
Regardless of one’s goals, businesses within capitalism are forced to compete, not simply with mainstream or corporate versions in the same industry, but also often with other alternative institutions. A principal example of this relating to Mondragón’s experience in the book-selling industry is the deliberate under-cutting of prices on certain titles and authors by the corporate bookstores in Winnipeg, in a deliberate attempt to undermine and squeeze out the competition (namely, us). It’s also reflected in the occasional scouting out of the competition, and the stocking of certain “alternative” titles by the big-box stores, which they would not otherwise order or highlight.
Another constraint has to do with “economies of scale” which favour big businesses or corporations in pretty much every type of industry. At Mondragón, large-scale corporate buying power in both the book-selling and food industries was – and remains – a significant advantage that mainstream business holds over small-scale business (whether it is a small family-owned business or farm, or an alternative worker-run business). This might seem obvious, but it’s the kind of thing that contributes to the marginalization or eventual destruction of alternative institutions, not to mention increased concentration and monopolization in industries. It’s also something that otherwise progressive and left people often forget when they (sometimes unfairly) expect alternative institutions to mimic corporate ones in terms of prices or services. In the bookselling industry, large corporate chains can demand and exact larger discounts from publishers and distributors, simply by virtue of their buying power. This is one critical way that corporations can undercut alternative store prices, and eventually force competition out of business. Small bookstores often have to take lesser discounts (and either mark-up retail prices to reflect industry standards, or take lower profit margins to remain “competitive”), or they have to forfeit their “right of return” (i.e., to return unsold titles) in order to get the same discounts as corporate giants. This is just one more in a long line of financial constraints which complicate any evaluation of parecon in practice.
Competition between different alternative, already marginal bookstores within a particular city can be just as pronounced, as can competition in terms of on-line website development and sales. While it makes sense for each city to have at least one progressive bookstore outlet, it is doubtful that any but the largest cities can sustain multiple alternative bookstores under capitalism, and less doubtful that a single country or continent can sustain online book sales from dozens – let alone hundreds – of online left and progressive alternatives, competing amongst themselves to be a kind of “dissident” amazon.com. And yet this is precisely what the market pushes alternative bookstores and other businesses to do. Regardless of our other intentions and possible commitment to parecon values, we still want to maximize our revenues, we still want to pay our bills, we still want to increase workers’ wages and benefits as an end in and of themselves. Regardless of its complete and utter inefficiency, we might still ship special order books clear across the continent (or planet) because our “online store” could be easier to find than an actual progressive store in the buyer’s own hometown! It’s in our immediate financial interest to ship books from Winnipeg to some buyer in Glasgow, charging them extra for postage and handling, even though there’s probably a number of decent anarchist bookstores in Scotland. So in the realm of online book sales, this means that whatever we gain, others tend to lose. The forces at work are such that individual self-interest tends to collide with solidarity and collective interests, and even in some cases, the interests of the customer – not out of necessity or “human nature” but by virtue of market imperatives.
Revenue generation through the provision of a needed service or alternative product, or to cover wages for workers, can take on a logic of its own – such that work can become all-consuming, revenue-generation can become more important than political or economic vision, and alternative institutions must struggle to avoid becoming completely parochial or irrelevant. Parecon institutions may have important advantages and “checks” in this regard over “progressive” institutions which adopt hierarchical structures of decision-making, labour, remuneration, and so on. But they are by no means immune.
Another constraint of capitalism on this type of work has to do with the limitations on the diversity of balanced jobs complexes. At best, BJC’s will be confined to single enterprises, or a small set of enterprises in a particular city. The types of work available will be narrower, and the diversity of the tasks able to be performed will obviously be diminished from what would be available under a full participatory economy. This will inevitably have implications for burnout and turn-over in the workplace – making these much more prevalent during any period of transition than the model suggests will be the case in the future. Nothing about the internal structure of the work at Mondragón changes the fact that it remains a service-oriented retail workplace, and that most people do not envision working in such an industry for their entire lives.
One could go on and on about such constraints. The main thing to keep in mind is that they complicate any discussion of parecon theory versus practice, and make tentative any lessons that we might draw from the experiences of, say, Mondragón, or South End Press, or G-7 Welcoming Committee Records, or ZNet. All our examples of alternative parecon institutions are shaped by the constraints of capitalism, and the limits of our own vision, and sorting out the causes of our successes and failures, and revising our own vision and practice, will go on forever. At least, I hope so.
V. Political Relevance & Transition
I would like to end the discussion by talking about political relevance and some questions of transition to a full participatory economy, and in effect, a new post-capitalist society.
But before I do this I want to talk a little about the relationship (commonalities and differences) between what I have been talking about – building alternative institutions, examples of alternative workplaces, and some lessons we can draw – and other points of potential struggle, such as traditional labour unionism, mass civil society movements, and even electoral politics.
First thing’s first: cooperatives are a type of labour, not separate from it. Both the labour movement as it’s typically understood, and the cooperative/collectivist tradition, are worker strategies to mitigate the brutality of the market system. In this entire discussion, I have not been trying to suggest one road over the other. Both are strategies, with their own flaws and advantages. Both have sought to do three things historically:
Fight for immediate material gains in order to mitigate the exploitation and brutality of the economic system and increase workers’ bargaining power (sometimes dismissed as “bread and butter” issues);
Raise consciousness about the systemic imperatives of capitalism and markets (which require an under-class), in an attempt to build a mass movement, and press for larger social and political gains (not just for ourselves, but in solidarity with others at home and abroad); and
Leave the next generation more skilled and empowered, better able to fight for further gains, and ultimately: creating a self-sustaining and growing network of institutions, widening the sphere of social and economic life under community control, and fostering a “new worker” with the practical skills, knowledge and experience to be able to govern their own lives and work. At their worst moments, both the labour and cooperative movements have fought for the first of these three (sometimes poorly, but even sometimes with remarkable success), while ignoring the world beyond their immediate borders, or accepting the basic framework of inequity as “inevitable.”
Now obviously, neither the labour nor cooperative movements are homogenous, and there are vast differences, organizationally, nationally, globally, and historically, within each tradition. At their best, both traditions fight for all of these things. I am in no way suggesting that a parecon-inspired collectivist approach is better or more relevant than radical unionism, than fighting for gains within an existing capitalist business. This is absolutely necessary too. No one will win lasting, systemic changes or “revolution” (whatever that means), unless we open up multiple fronts simultaneously. Nor am I suggesting by focusing on labour and work that political and electoral campaigns are useless – although I’ve yet to find a political party in my own country of Canada that didn’t make me vomit! (Maybe things are different with the PT in Brazil....if the successes of the participatory budget process right here in Porto Alegre are as great as many people think.) At any rate, winning lasting, systemic changes in any one domain of social life will not happen unless we challenge the structures of power in every domain.
But just as important as it is to not be dogmatic by insisting upon some “primary” front or vehicle of social and revolutionary change, I think it also needs to be pointed out that the values and norms I’ve been talking about for work and workplaces apply equally to other kinds of institutions, and to our larger “civil society,” community, and solidarity movements themselves. For example, if you think the most important thing to be focused on right now is preventing the war on Iraq, or highlighting and mitigating human rights abuses in Palestine (or Turkey, or Colombia, or elsewhere), or challenging U.S. imperialism and corporate globalization more generally, then I think there are still important lessons regarding work and hierarchy to bring to these struggles, and apply to the organizations we work within to advance them.
But, one might ask: Given the horrendous state of domestic and world affairs, and the sheer scale of injustice and oppression that exists, shouldn’t our priority be to expose, document, and mitigate atrocities right now – rather than wasting time (or talents) fussing about internal structure, balancing job tasks, or nit-picking about who does what? Isn’t it more important to act now?
While I agree with the ethical imperative to act, I think the assumption that equity and job balancing leads to wasted energy, time, or a misuse of talents is simply unfounded. There are a lot of assumptions wrapped up in this, not all of them entirely related to one another. First of all, almost no one uses every hour of their day doing the single most important thing they could be doing from an ethical or progressive political standpoint. We socialize, drink beer, dance, take naps, have sex, play games, make music, go to movies, sit in the sun, or just think in quiet solitude. To do otherwise, to be a puritan or martyr without time for human interaction, creativity, or play, is neither realistic nor desirable – even if it’s technically feasible. Therefore, to cut back on some of our leisure time, to spend one less evening at the pub this month, and instead to put some thought into conceptualizing fair and equitable work circumstances, is hardly to turn one’s back on activism.
Second, the claim that skills or talents in some area (such as public-speaking or writing articles about repression and resistance) will be under-utilized by requiring such people to perform less skilled or less desirable work (like going to planning meetings, or putting up posters), does not withstand even mild scrutiny. It’s no different from saying that to abolish racist or sexist divisions of labour (and unequal pay) in the workplace, or inside our movement organizations, would be inefficient, because the “scarce talents” of, say, white men would be under-utilized. The “wasted talent” argument assumes that key talents are present in only small fractions of the population, or assumes that training others to the same level would be too costly. The implicit assumption is that while it is inefficient for skilled orators or journalists to waste time in organizing meetings, or worry about office cleaning, booking rooms for events, fund-raising, or other mundane tasks associated with activism – it is apparently not inefficient for others to do so. (As noted earlier, I am in no way suggesting by this that differential knowledge, skills, capacities, and training are irrelevant, or that real differences don’t exist. I am merely saying that we cannot use this as a perpetual justification for maintaining class hierarchies and cushy job privileges within our own workplaces and movement organizations.) We need to construct workplaces and broader movements in which the stated policies, structures, and goals include training and empowerment to offset inequalities – rather than accepting them as “unfortunate” inevitabilities.
These aren’t the only arguments against the “wasted time” and “wasted talent” objections. But ultimately, I think the insights of parecon, and the lessons of those workplaces attempting to incorporate them into their daily practice, are equally valuable for our movement organizations – regardless of their particular focus. In short, anywhere that there are decisions that need to be made, and work that needs to be done, the questions of internal structure, division of labour, hierarchy, participation, and conflict resolution are central.
Finally, while I have talked a little about the constraints of capitalism on building alternative workplaces, and how this complicates any discussion of parecon theory in practice, there are lots of important areas related to transition that have been left out. I haven’t said anything, for example, about the different constraints upon such alternative institutions, depending on one’s country, including its particular history of struggle, and reactionary or repressive obstacles. I also haven’t had time to discuss some important cooperative/collective experiences around the world, in relation to parecon, including the Basque Mondragón network in Spain, similar networks in Italy, various cooperative experiments in Africa (like the Oodi Weavers), or India’s Kerala. Each of these incorporates many of the same values and goals of parecon, and each has its own successes and failures, and many lessons to teach.
So, in terms of political relevance, I think that talking about work after capitalism need not be an academic exercise, and building alternative institutions today need not be parochial, reactionary, or what is often dismissed as “reformist.” It’s up to us to decide if they remain that way. And it’s up to us to decide if our alternative institutions and movements welcome new people, raise awareness, and further revolutionary goals. Not only do we not need to wait for the (capital “R”) Revolution, but we can’t wait for it. If everyone does that, there simply won’t be one. And if there actually was one – a situation in which the institutions of capitalist power were disabled or dismantled by some popular movement – nobody would have a clue about what to do next, or the skills necessary to do it.
Part of the motivation behind building participatory businesses and organizations today is that we simply want to live in ways consistent with our principles, with dignity, and in solidarity with others, and yes, we want to mitigate the brutality of capitalism, even as we sit in its shadow. But equally important is that we need to learn the skills necessary to govern ourselves, to organize key areas of production, to establish networks of communication and distribution, and to build a culture of resistance and cooperation – all of which will leave us better prepared to fill the political and economic vacuum left by a revolution, and to head off the rise of vanguards, skilled orators, technocrats, “new democrats,” Leninists, what-have-you, claiming to rule in “the people’s interest.”
So, in terms of transition to a full participatory economy, building a network of alternative institutions today is one approach, one front of many – but in my opinion, it’s a necessary one. Unfortunately, it’s one front which the Left has often done poorly, at least in terms of building alternatives which actually incorporate into the work structures the values that leftists profess to hold. But the lessons of existing alternative workplaces in Canada and around the world – both parecon-inspired ones, and other “fellow travellers” – are simple. Work can be organized without hierarchy, and still be organized, still be efficient, still get the job done. Workers can democratically control their own workplaces, set production goals, decide what is an acceptable average effort and pace, and determine their own wages, without running a business into the ground (as Ayn Rand and so-called “coordinator class” or managerial advocates everywhere suggest), and we can do this without turning our back on “activism” as it’s typically understood.
We need to be realistic about the pace of social change, but we also need to be building self-sustaining and growing alternative networks right now. And we need to be doing it in a way that will leave the next generation of activists better equipped to press their demands, intensify or widen the struggle, and assume an even greater degree of control over their own lives and work. It’s absolutely unrealistic to think that an egalitarian, participatory, feminist, socialist, anarchist or any other “paradise” can be created in a day, or for that matter ever, and unrealistic expectations are a fast road to burnout and despair. But equally paralyzing is the belief that everything’s hopeless, or all our efforts are trivial, or everything short of some sweeping revolution is “reformist.” We need to strike a balance between hope and reality, if we want our efforts to be truly sustainable. And we need real, positive examples to point to, which embody the principles we hold, and incorporate aspects of the vision we aspire to. So, I’ll end by borrowing a phrase from an un-named sweatshop corporation: “Just do it!”