By Michael Albert at Feb 07, 2011
Chapter Twelve: Participatory Vision
Informs Participatory Revolution
Draft of chapter for the book in process, Fanfare for the Future - please do not quote.
We now have the main components of a vision for new, desirable, institutions for a new, desirable, society. What do we call it? Many will call it participatory society. Many others will call it participatory socialism. Why the two names is one question we address in this chapter. A second is, what will be the place of a participatory society in the environment? Its ecological footprint? Also, what will be the place of a participatory society in the world - its international relations? Last, to motivate our next set of chapters which enter into much more detail - we very briefly outline the relation of participatory society to movements for social change. Let us take these in turn.
Why Two Names
Our vision fulfills the stated aspirations of socialists - also anarchists, feminists, intercommunalists, and really everyone who stands for justice, etc. Grassroots socialists typically want justice, people controlling their own lives, classlessness, feminism, cultural diversity, and so on. So our vision suits them. So why not just call it socialism? Well, that term has been claimed - not to match the values, but for a specific mix of institutions also lumped under the terms Twentieth Century Socialism, market socialism, centrally planned, socialism, really existing socialism, and so on. They referent is the old Soviet Union, China, etc. These systems no more fulfill the values we have put forth than the U.S. System fulfills the values it advocates say they favor, diversity, freedom, democracy, fairness, and so on. What has usurped the name socialism has in fact typically not been very feminist, not been intercommunalist (almost the opposite), not been self managing (but instead grossly authoritarian), and not even been classless, its catchword label, but instead had its economies ruled by the coordinator class above workers.
All this is anathema. Take just the economy - which for socialists is what they mainly key in on. Heretofore socialism in practice - the institutions - has included at best paper councils with no real power (often after real ones have been destroyed), remuneration for output and power, corporate divisions of labor, allocation by markets, central planning, or a combination of the two - and, due to all that, coordinator class rule. In contrast, participatory economics, part of our developing vision, has worker and consumer councils as the vehicles of decision making, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor, balanced job complexes, and allocation by participatory planning - and, due to all that, classlessness. This is not apples and oranges. It is arsenic and nutrition.
Okay, so we can’t call our vision socialism, it seems, for fear of implying it has something in common with all that. However, again, most socialists around the world, also reject - at least in theory - all that. And the propose essentially the same values we do. And many have already indicated their support for the new formulations. And they want to keep touch with the heritage - not out of loyalty to horrendous institutional choices of the past, but out of allegiance to the memory of all the grassroots activists, like themselves, who south a vision like ours but had their dreams subverted rather than fulfilled.
Okay, can we accommodate? Perhaps yes. Perhaps calling our economic vision participatory economics not market or centrally planned socialism, and calling our kinship, cultural, and political visions, participatory kinship, community, and polity - plus calling the amalgamation of it all participatory socialism, is enough to make the distinction. For those who think it is, and who want to continue the legacy not of one party states, class rule, quarter way or less feminism, and cultural homogenization - but of truly socialist values - calling the vision in this book participatory socialism will make sense. For those who worry even more about clarifying the differences with the past, calling it participatory society will make sense. Which name will emerge as used more, or perhaps even overall, time will tell. In either case, the shorthand version is parsoc.
Parsoc and Ecology
When asking the implications of participatory society/socialism, or parsoc, for the ecology, the main issue is economics - but it is via production and consumption that by far the largest social impact on ecology occurs, and economies affect natural environments in diverse ways, of course. Economies add new contents to the environment, such as pollutants. They deplete natural contents from the environment, such as resources. They alter the arrangement and composition of attributes in the environment or the way in which people relate to the environment, such as by building dams or creating changed patterns of human habitation, among countless other possibilities. And each of these and other possible ways of an economy affecting the environment can, in turn, have additional ripple effects on nature’s composition and on people’s lives.
Thus, for example, an economy can add economic byproducts to the environment as in exhaust spewing from cars or smoke stacks accumulating chemicals in the atmosphere. In turn these effluents can impede breathing or alter the way the sun’s rays affect atmospheric temperatures. Both these economic implications can themselves have ripple effects on people’s health, or on air currents which then impact sea currents in turn affecting polar ice caps and then altering weather patterns, sea levels, and crop yields, in turn dramatically impacting human options and conditions.
Or an economy can use up oil, water, or forests, leading to people having to reduce their use of depleted resources and thus affecting the total level of both production and consumption around the world, or affecting the availability of nutrients essential to life, or of building materials needed for creating dwellings in many parts of the world.
Or an economy can alter the shape and content of the natural environment’s dynamics, as for example when by reducing forests we reduce the supply of oxygen they emit into the atmosphere, or when by increasing the number of cows and affecting their eating patterns (to produce more tasty steak for ourselves) we increase the methane they expel, again leading to greenhouse effects that in turn alter global weather patterns, or when we alter human living patterns and thus transportation patterns and other consumption patterns and attitudes, affecting people’s on-going relations to mountains, rivers, air, and other species.
In the above cases and countless others impacting the supply or the quality of weather, air, water, or even noise, globally or regionally, or affecting resource availability, or even affecting the availability of enjoyable or natural environments, what we do in our economic lives affects either directly or by a many-step process, how we environmentally prosper or suffer in our daily lives, whether now or in the future, as well as how the environment itself adapts.
In other words, economic acts have direct, secondary, and tertiary affects on the environment, and the changed environment in turn has direct, secondary, and tertiary affects on our life conditions.
Sometimes these effects are horrifying, as in seas rising to swallow coastal areas and even whole low lying countries, or as in crop, resource, or water depletion that causes starvation or other extreme widespread deprivations. Or maybe the effects are slightly less severe but still horrific as in tornados, hurricanes, droughts and floods devastating large swaths of population, or inflated cancer rates caused by polluted ground water or by escalated radiation cutting down large numbers of people early in life, or dams eliminating whole towns or villages due to their footprint. Or maybe the effects are limited to smaller areas suffering loss of enriching environmental surroundings when natural environments are paved over or when noise pollution arises from loud production or consumption.
It follows from all these possibilities that the relations of an economy to the surrounding natural environment are deadly serious and that to fail regarding relations to the environment, even if succeeding on all other criteria, would be a damning weakness for any proposed economic model or new society.
Capitalism and Ecology
Capitalism fails miserably regarding the environment. First, capitalism’s market system prioritizes maximizing short-run profit regardless of long-run implications. Second, markets ignore environmental effects and have built in incentives to violate the environment whenever doing so will yield profits or, for that matter, consumer fulfillment at the cost of others. And, third, there is the capitalist drive to accumulate regardless of effects on life and all other variables.
In markets, to explain the above, a seller encounters a buyer. The seller tries to get as high a price as possible for the object sold while also diminishing costs of production. This is done to maximize profits, which in turn not only yields higher income, but also facilitates competition-enhancing investments undertaken to win market share and thereby stay in business.
The buyer, meanwhile, tries to pay for an item as low a price as possible and then to consume it with as much fulfillment as possible regardless of the impact of these actions on others about whom little or no information is available.
For both parties market exchange obscures the effects their choices have beyond the buyer and seller, and prevents taking into account the well being of those who feel these external effects.
More, if some course of action will lower the cost of producing an item or will increase the fulfillment of its consumption, but will also incur environmental degradation that affects someone other than the buyer or seller, that course of action will be undertaken. Thus we routinely use production techniques that pollute and also consume items with no regard for environmental impact.
Rock salt, it turns out, is a very effective tool for “keeping both private driveways and public highways from icing up.” Andrew Bard Schmookler reports that “…the runoff of the salt…causes damage to underground cables, car bodies, bridges, and groundwater. The cost of these damages is twenty to forty times the price of the salt to the persons or organization buying and using it.”
In other words, rock salt has unaccounted adverse effects beyond the buyers and sellers who choose to produce it, sell it, buy it, and use it, to keep road from icing up. Schmookler then reports that “there is an alternative product to rock salt that produces no such damage from runoff. It is called CMA, and it costs a good deal more than the salt. It costs less, however, than the damages the salt inflicts.” But "No highway department, homeowner, or business would purchase large quantities of CMA today even if it were widely available, because the individual doesn't care about [social] cost, only [about private] price."
In other words, markets create incentives to violate the environment and anything else external to the buyer and seller whenever doing so will enhance the producer’s profit.
This is just one of countless examples, chosen for its clarity, and as Schmookler rightly concludes, it shows that market forces “will make changes flow in a predictable direction, like water draining off the land, downhill, to the sea.”
That is, sellers will use production methods that spew pollution but that cost less than using clean technologies, or they will use production methods that damage groundwater or use up resources but that cost less than methods that don’t, or they will use production methods that build into products secondary effects which consumers who buy the product won’t directly suffer but others will, and which cost less. And the same logic will typically hold for consumer choices about how to utilize the items they have bought. The impact of their use on others will most often be unknown and ignored.
And it isn’t only that in each transaction the participants have an incentive to find the cheapest, most profitable course of production and the most personally fulfilling course of consumption, it is that markets compel the absolute maximum of exchanges to be enacted. There is a drive to buy and sell even beyond the direct benefits of doing so because each producer is weighing off not the benefits of a little more income versus a little more leisure due to working less but, instead, the benefits of staying in business versus going out of business. That is, each actor competes for market share to gain surpluses with which to invest to reduce future costs, pay for future advertising, etc., and these surpluses must be maximized in the present lest one is out competed in the future.
The race for market share becomes a drive to continually amass profit without respite, which means to do so even beyond what the greed of owners might otherwise entail.
In all market systems, and particularly in capitalist markets, growth is god. The guiding philosophy is grow or die regardless of contrary personal inclinations. This not only violates attentiveness to sustainability of resources but also produces a steadily escalating flow of garbage and pollution. Transactions multiply and in each transaction the incentive to pollute and to otherwise violate the environment persists. In the end, what we get is an economy spewing into, using up, and damaging the environment on a massive scale - ranging from turning communities into dump sites, making cities sick with smog, polluting ground waters that in turn escalate cancer rates, or causing global warming that threatens not only raging storms but even vast upheavals of ocean levels and agriculture, with untold costs to follow.
Parsoc and Ecology
Will a participatory economy be any better for the environment than capitalism? The answer is yes, for a number of reasons.
First, in a parecon there is no pressure to accumulate. Each producer is not compelled to try to expand surplus in order to compete with other producers for market share, but, instead, the level of output reflects a true mediation between desires for more consumption and desires for a lower overall amount of work.
In other words, whereas in capitalism the labor/leisure trade off is biased heavily toward more production at all times due to the need for overall growth to avoid shrinkage and failure, in parecon it is an actual, real, unbiased trade off.
In a parecon we each face a choice between increasing the overall duration and intensity of our labor to increase our consumption budget, or, instead, working less to increase our overall time available to enjoy labor’s products and the rest of life’s options. And since society as a whole faces this exact same choice, we can reasonably predict that instead of a virtually limitless drive to increase work hours and intensity, a parecon will have no drive to accumulate output beyond levels that meet needs and develop potentials, and will therefore stabilize at much lower output and work levels - say thirty hours of work a week, and eventually, even less. Interestingly, and revealingly, some mainstream economists criticize that in a parecon people will decide their work levels and will likely decide on less than now as a flaw rather than celebrating it as a virtue, which I of course take it to be.
The second issue is one of valuation. Again unlike in capitalism, as well as with markets more generally, participatory planning doesn’t have each transaction determined only by the person who directly produces and the person who directly consumes, with each of these participants having structural incentives to maximize personal benefits regardless of the broader social impact. Instead, every act of production and consumption in a parecon is part of a total overall integrated economic plan. The interrelations of each actor with all other actors and of each action with all other actions are not just real and highly consequential - which is of course always true - but are also properly accounted for.
In a parecon production or consumption of gas, cigarettes, and other items with either positive or negative effects on people beyond the buyer and seller take into account those effects. The same holds for decisions about larger projects, for example, building a dam, installing wind turbines, or cutting back on certain resources. Projects are amended in light of feedback from affected councils at all levels of society, from individuals and neighborhoods through countries or states to the whole population.
The key point is relatively simple. By eliminating the market drive to accumulate and to have only a short time horizon, and by eliminating market-induced ignorance of economic effects that extend beyond buyers and sellers (such as on the environment) and the consequent market mispricing of items, parecon properly accounts and provides means, as well, to sensibly self manage environmental impacts.
It isn’t that there is no pollution in a parecon. And it isn’t that no non-renewable items are ever used. These norms would make no sense. You can’t produce without some waste and you can’t prosper without using up some resources.
Rather, what is necessary is that when production or consumption generates negative effects on the environment, or when it uses up resources that we value and cannot replace, the decision to do these things ought to be made taking into account the implications.
We should not transact when the benefits don’t outweigh the detriments. And we should not transact unless the distribution of benefits and detriments is just, rather than some people suffering unduly.
This is what parecon via participatory planning ecologically accomplishes and really all that we can ask an economy to do by its own internal logic. We don’t want the economy to prejudge outcomes deciding by the pressure of its institutional dynamics results that humans have no say in, as, for example, the accumulation drive propelled by markets deciding the labor/leisure trade-off. We want a good economy via its institutions to let people who are affected make their own judgments with the best possible knowledge of true and full costs and benefits by bringing to bear appropriate self managing influence. If the economy presents this spectrum of possibility and control to its actors, as parecon does, what is left to assess is what people will then likely decide, and on that score all that we can ask of an economy is that people not be biased by institutional pressures or made ignorant due to institutional biases. Parecon guarantees both of these aims. Parecon also provides for people to be free and self managing, and ensures that the logic of the economy is consistent with and possibly even conducive to the richest possible human comprehension of ecological connections and options.
Similarly, we can ask of the rest of society - its culture, its kinship relations, and its polity - that these too, by the implications of their roles for people’s beliefs and desires - habits and interests - that they not bias people against the environment or future generations. Of course we can refine our understanding of participatory kinship, community, and polity beyond their fledgling descriptions in our vision to date, yet even as they are now, I suspect readers will agree they would yield people with sensible care-taking attitudes toward their surroundings and with nurturant attitudes toward future generations.
Under these circumstances, it is reasonable to think that parecon’s and parsoc’s citizens will not only make wise choices for their own interests, but for their children and grandchildren as well, regarding not only direct production and consumption, but also the myriad ripple effects of economic activity on the environment.
We live on a planet, earth, a gigantic rock swirling in space around an almost unfathomably larger and hugely energy generating sphere of combustion, the sun, in an even vaster sea of similar entities born billions of years ago and maturing ever since. We share the bounty or resources and energy of our planet and the sun’s rays with a huge diversity of other species, who themselves contribute in a multitude of ways to defining how the planet produces, processes, and presents its assets to us.
Indeed, our own existence arose from a sequence of other species modified by chance occurrences and selected by dynamics of cooperation and competition, and our existence depends for its continuation on a vast number of current species as well.
A capitalist economy views other species as it does everything else, in terms of their profit-making possibilities. If directly preserving or nurturing a species is profitable, capitalists do it. If ignoring another species and leaving it to its own wiles is profitable, capitalists do that. If directly consuming or indirectly obliterating another species is profitable, again, that is the capitalist way to go.
Capitalist market competition looks around and assesses profitable possibilities and pursues them. If we add to capitalist economy governments or other agencies with priorities other than profit, they may ameliorate many ills, though if these bodies significantly defy or impede profit-making it will be difficult for them to maintain themselves against the logic of capitalist accumulation. This occurs both because the economy fights back against efforts to restrain accumulation and because capitalism tends to produce a population unreceptive to even thinking about even the long-term benefits of other species to people, much less the independent rights of other species.
These insights encapsulate the well known history of environmental concerns. The results we see around us are indicative of the destruction wrought by profit-seeking pressures.
What would replace capitalism’s possibly suicidal and certainly horribly gory interspecies relations if we instead had a parecon?
First, a parecon would move us from profit as the guiding norm of economic choice to human fulfillment and well being in accord with solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management.
Second, parecon would move us from having a driving profit-seeking logic that constantly overpowers and undoes any ecologically or otherwise non profit-justified restrictions placed on the economy, to instead being flexibly responsive to constraints imposed by forces and concerns that are not economic.
Third, parecon moves its producers and consumers from having a very narrow and fragmented approach to economy, to instead comprehending the interconnectedness of all acts and their multiple implications.
And fourth, parecon moves us from a me-first, anti-social interpersonal mindset that can easily extend beyond relations to people toward relations to nature, to a solidaristic interpersonal mindset, which can plausibly extend to nature and species as well.
The first point is a change of guiding logic or motivation. The second point is a change in its intensity. Together they ensure that parecon doesn’t have the negative impetus toward other species typical of capitalism. The third and fourth points bear upon a less structural issue, more conjectural, which is whether people who operate as workers and consumers in a parecon are likely to be more receptive to arguments regarding the rights of other species.
Regarding its guiding logic a parecon intrinsically and inexorably views other species at least as it views everything else, which is in light of pursuing human fulfillment and development possibilities consistent with promoting solidarity, advancing diversity, maintaining equity, and ensuring self management. In a parecon, if directly preserving or nurturing a species is humanly beneficial, the incentives will be strong to do it. If leaving a species to its own devices is humanly beneficial, again, the incentives will point in that direction. If directly consuming or indirectly obliterating a species by taking away its habitat is humanly beneficial, again, that is the purely economic path that a good economy would intrinsically arrive at.
Parecon via its participatory planning looks around and assesses humanly beneficial possibilities, and provides means and reasons for producers and consumers to pursue them. It does not, of its own accord, incorporate the interests of non human species. And, regrettably, such species can not be incorporated as decision-makers to attend to their own interests.
However, a parsoc’s citizens can decide that they want to add to their participatory economic institutions, political or other agencies to act on behalf of species, and these structures can be smoothly incorporated even if they defy or impede possible human benefits on behalf of the rights of other species. Indeed, even in such cases, while such structures or agencies will need to be added to parecon because a parecon has no planning procedure that allows species other than people to express their intentions and desires, and while these structures will therefore presumably need to have popular support manifested through political, legislative choices, maintenance of such restraints on economic activity will not require a continuous and difficult struggle against the continually re-impinging logic of capitalist accumulation because the latter is absent.
In participatory economics, that is, once there is a political restriction placed on the economy - let’s say, the economy is not to interfere with the nesting habitats of caique parrots, or the economy must, if altering those habitats, move all potentially affected caiques to new and at least as sustainable environments - the economy functions thereafter in accord with the external ruling and it does not continually produce structural pressures and practices that try to overcome or remove the restriction. Individuals might try to reverse such a decision, but the system as a whole has no built-in tendency to do so.
Where capitalism and a society that has a capitalist economy has an accumulation process that propels each producer to try to maximize profits regardless of external restraints, a participatory economy and a society that has a participatory economy functions well in context of external restraints and has no built-in tendency to aggressively seek to overcome or thwart them.
The question arises, however, can we expect the kinds of external constraints I have mentioned so far to arise in a society with a participatory economy? Will producers and consumers who use self managed councils, balanced, job complexes, equitable remuneration, and participatory planning be inclined to stewardship for species other than their own and therefore to incorporate rules and norms on behalf of such species on top of the economic means they share to manifest their own preferences? That is, will the populace in a parecon be more or less receptive to arguments on behalf of other species than they would be if their economy were instead capitalist?
It is hard to answer a question like this definitively before the fact, of course. But it seems quite plausible that whatever factors tend to cause people to become concerned for other species they will be less thwarted and more enhanced in a system that promotes solidarity, as does a parecon, than in a system that promotes antisociality, as does capitalism. And the same holds for participatory kinship, community, and polity as compared to patriarchy, racist and bigoted group relations, and authoritarian polity.
Similarly, a parecon exalts not only the benefits that accrue from variety, but also the need to avoid narrow scenarios that eliminate options we might later find superior. We can expect parecon’s respect for diversity in social situations to extend to a popular awareness of the richness of biodiversity and its intricate interconnectivity. Hurting or eliminating species curbs diversity and risks long-term currently unknown losses to humanity as well.
In sum then, participatory economics and a participatory society including parecon removes capitalism’s accumulation drive for corporate profit which compels behavior that hurts and even decimates other species. It puts in its place a concern for human well being and development that doesn’t forcefully a priori preclude harming other species, but which is receptive to and respectful of governmental or other social or ecological restraints on behalf of other species. If other species had votes, in other words, they would vote for parecon.
Parsoc and the World
Current international market trading overwhelmingly benefits those who enter today’s exchanges already possessing the most assets. When trade occurs between a U.S. multinational and a local entity in Guatemala, Kenya, or Thailand, the benefits do not go more to the weaker party with fewer assets, nor are they divided equally, but they go disproportionately to the stronger traders who thereby increase their relative dominance.
Opportunist rhetoric aside, capitalist globalizers try to disempower the poor and already weak and to further empower the rich and already strong. The result: of the 100 largest economies in the world, over half aren’t countries, they are corporations, and tens of millions throughout the world not only live in abysmal poverty, but starve to death each year.
Similarly, international market competition for resources, revenues, and audience is most often a zero sum game. To advance, each market participant preys off the defeat of others so that capitalist globalization promotes a me-first attitude that generates hostility and destroys solidarity between individuals, corporations, industries, and states. Public and social goods are downplayed, private ones are elevated. Businesses, industries, and nations augment their own profits while imposing losses on other countries and even on most citizens of their own country. Human well being is not a guiding precept.
Moreover, in current global exchange structures, whether they are McDonaldsesque or Disneyesque, or even if they instead derive from worthy indigenous roots, cultural communities and values disperse only as widely as their reach permits them too, and worse, are routinely drowned out by other communities with greater reach.
Capitalist globalization swamps quality with quantity. It creates cultural homogenization, not diversity. Not only does Starbucks proliferate, so do Hollywood images of women and minorities and Madison Avenue styles elevating greed and self centeredness - not to mention violence. What is indigenous, non-commercial, gender equitable much less feminist, must struggle to even survive. Diversity declines.
In the halls of the capitalist globalizers, only political and corporate elites are welcome. The idea that the broad public of working people, consumers, farmers, the poor, and the disenfranchised should have proportionate say is actively opposed. Indeed, the point of capitalist globalization is precisely to reduce the influence of whole populations, and even of state leaderships, save for the most powerful elements of Western corporate and political rule. Capitalist globalization imposes corporatist hierarchy not only in economics, but also in politics and culture - and because it carries the seeds of patriarchy, in gender relations as well. Authoritarian and even fascistic state structures proliferate. The number of voices with even marginal say declines.
As the financiers in corporate headquarters extend stockholders’ influence, the earth beneath is dug, drowned, and paved without attention to other species, to by-products, to ecology, or even to humanity. Only profit and power drive the calculations.
Anti-globalization activists oppose capitalist globalization because capitalist globalization violates the equity, diversity, solidarity, self-management, and ecological balance that activists pursue.
Capitalist globalization also establishes norms and expectations of international dominance and subordination. To establish, enforce, defend, and punish violations of those norms, the strong will often use violence against the weak. Domestically this means growing police state apparatuses and repression. Internationally it means local, regional, and international hostilities and war.
So the question naturally arises, what is the alternative to capitalist globalization violating, as it does, virtually all norms of civilized and mutually beneficial exchange and development?
Supporting Global Justice
What do anti-globalization activists propose to put in place instead of the institutions of capitalist globalization, including most prominently the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization?
The International Monetary Fund or IMF and World Bank were established after World War II. The IMF was meant to provide means to combat financial disruptions adversely impacting countries and people around the world. It initially used negotiation and pressure to stabilize currencies and to help countries avoid economy-disrupting financial machinations and confusion.
The World Bank was meant to facilitate long-term investment in underdeveloped countries and to expand and strengthen their economies. It was set up to lend major investment money at low interest to correct for the lack of local capacity.
Within then existing market relations, these limited IMF and World Bank goals were progressive. Over time, however, and accelerating dramatically in the 1980s, the agenda of these institutions changed. Instead of facilitating stable exchange rates and helping countries protect themselves against financial fluctuations, the IMF began bashing any and all obstacles to capital flow and unfettered profit seeking, despite that this was virtually the opposite of its mandate.
Instead of facilitating investment on behalf of local poor economies, the World Bank became a tool of the IMF, providing and withholding loans as carrot or stick to compel open corporate access. It financed projects not with an eye to accruing benefits for the recipient country, but with far more attention to accruing benefits to major multinationals.
In addition, the World Trade Organization (WTO) that was first proposed in the early postwar period actually came into being only decades later, in the mid 1990s. Its agenda became to regulate trade on behalf of ever greater advantages for the already rich and powerful.
Beyond imposing on third world countries low wages and high pollution due to being able to easily coerce their weak or bought-off governments, as IMF and World Bank policies were already achieving by the 1990s, the idea emerged that the rich could also weaken all governments and agencies that might defend workers, consumers, or the environment, not only in the third world, but everywhere. Why not, wondered the truly powerful, remove any efforts to limit trade due to its labor implications, its ecology implications, its social or cultural implications, or its developmental implications, leaving as the only legal criteria of trade’s regulation whether there are immediate, short-term profits to be made? If national or local laws impede trade - say an environmental, health, or labor law - why not have a new organization of world trade to adjudicate disputes, and to render an entirely predictable pro-corporate verdict in all cases? The WTO was thus added to the IMF/World Bank team to trump governments and populations on behalf of corporate profits.
The full story about these three centrally important global institutions is longer than this brief synopsis can present, of course, but even with only an overview, improvements are not hard to conceive.
First, why not have, instead of the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO, an International Asset Agency, a Global Investment Assistance Agency, and a World Trade Agency. These three new (not merely reformed) institutions would work to attain equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management, and ecological balance in international financial exchange, investment, development, trade, and cultural exchange.
They would try to ensure that the benefits of trade and investments accrue disproportionately to the weaker and poorer parties involved, not to the already richer and more powerful.
They would not prioritize commercial considerations over all other values, but would prioritize national aims, cultural identity, and equitable development.
They would not require domestic laws, rules, and regulations designed to further worker, consumer, environmental, health, safety, human rights, animal protection, or other non-profit centered interests to be reduced or eliminated, but they would work to enhance all these, rewarding those who attain such aims most successfully.
They would not undermine democracy by shrinking the choices available to democratically controlled governments, but would work to subordinate the desires of multinationals and large economies to the survival, growth, and diversification of smaller units.
They would not promote global trade at the expense of local economic development and policies, but vice versa.
They would not force Third World countries to open their markets to rich multinationals and to abandon efforts to protect infant domestic industries, but would facilitate the reverse.
They would not block countries from acting in response to potential risks to human health or the environment, but would help identify health, environmental, and other risks, and assist countries in guarding against their ill effects.
Instead of downgrading international health, environmental, and other standards to a low level through a process called “downward harmonization,” they would work to upgrade standards by means of a new “upward equalization.”
The new institutions would not limit governments’ ability to use their purchasing dollars for human rights, environmental, worker rights, and other non-commercial purposes, but would advise and facilitate doing just that.
They would not disallow countries to treat products differently based on how they were produced - irrespective of whether they were made with brutalized child labor, with workers exposed to toxins, or with no regard for species protection - but they would instead facilitate just such differentiations.
Instead of bankers and bureaucrats carrying out policies of presidents to affect the lives of the very many without even a pretense at participation by the people affected, these new institutions would be open, democratic, transparent, participatory, and bottom up, with local, popular, and democratic accountability.
These new institutions would promote and organize international cooperation to restrain out-of-control global corporations, capital, and markets by regulating them so people in local communities could control their own economic lives.
They would promote trade that reduces the threat of financial volatility and meltdown, expands democracy at every level from the local to the global, defends and enriches human rights for all people, respects and fosters environmental sustainability worldwide, and facilitates economic advancement of the most oppressed and exploited groups.
They would encourage domestic economic growth and development, not domestic austerity in the interest of export-led growth.
They would encourage the major industrial countries to coordinate their economic policies, currency exchange rates, and short-term capital flows in the public interest and not for private profit.
They would establish standards for and oversee the regulation of financial institutions by national and international regulatory authorities, encouraging the shift of financial resources from speculation to useful and sustainable development.
They would establish taxes on foreign currency transactions to reduce destabilizing short-term cross-border financial flows and to provide pools of funds for investment in long-term environmentally and socially sustainable development in poor communities and countries.
They would create public international investment funds to meet human and environmental needs and ensure adequate global demand by channeling funds into sustainable long-term investment.
And they would develop international institutions to perform functions of monetary regulation currently inadequately performed by national central banks, such as a system of internationally coordinated minimum reserve requirements on the consolidated global balance sheets of all financial firms.
These new institutions would also work to get wealthy countries to write off the debts of impoverished countries and to create a permanent insolvency mechanism for adjusting debts of highly indebted nations.
They would use regulatory institutions to help establish public control and citizen sovereignty over global corporations and to curtail corporate evasion of local, state, and national law, such as by establishing a binding Code of Conduct for Transnational Corporations that includes regulation of labor, environmental, investment, and social behavior.
And beyond all the above, in addition to getting rid of the IMF, World Bank, and WTO and replacing them with the three dramatically new and different structures outlined above, anti-globalization activists also advocate a recognition that international relations should not derive from centralized but rather from bottom-up institutions. The new overarching structures mentioned above should therefore gain their credibility and power from an array of arrangements, structures, and ties enacted at the level of citizens, neighborhoods, states, nations and groups of nations on which they rest. And these more grassroots structures, alliances, and bodies defining debate and setting agendas should, like the three described earlier, also be transparent, participatory and democratic, and guided by a mandate that prioritizes equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management, and ecological sustainability and balance.
The overall idea is simple. The problem isn’t international relations per se. Anti-corporate globalization activists are, in fact, internationalist. The problem is that capitalist globalization alters international relations to further benefit the rich and powerful.
In contrast, activists want to alter relations to relatively weaken the rich and powerful and empower and improve the conditions of the poor and weak. Anti-corporate globalization activists know what we want internationally - global justice in place of capitalist globalization. But there is still a vision problem for anti-globalization activists, even after we describe alternative global economic institutions. Everyone knows that international norms and structures don’t drop from the sky. It is certainly true that once in existence they impose severe constraints on domestic arrangements and choices, but it is also true that global relations sit on top of, and are propelled and enforced by, the dictates of domestic economies and institutions.
The IMF, World Bank, and WTO impose capitalist institutions such as markets and corporations on countries around the world, of course. But the existence of markets and corporations in countries around the world likewise propels capitalist globalization.
So when anti-globalization activists offer a vision for a people-serving and democracy-enhancing internationalism in place of capitalist globalization, we are proposing to place a very good International Asset Agency, Global Investment Assistance Agency, and Global Trade Agency, plus a foundation of more grassroots democratic and transparent institutions on top of the very bad domestic economies we currently endure. The problem is that the persisting domestic structures inside our countries would continually work against the new international structures we construct on top of them. Persisting corporations and multinationals would not positively augment and enforce our preferred new international structures, but would at best temporarily succumb to pressures to install them and then perpetually exert pressures to return to their more rapacious ways.
So when people ask anti-globalization activists “what are you for?” they actually aren’t asking only what are we for internationally. They also mean, what are we for in place of capitalism?
If we have capitalism, they reason, there will inevitably be tremendous pressures for capitalist globalization and against anti-capitalist innovations. The new IAA, GIAA, and GTA sound nice, but even if we put them in place, the domestic economies of countries around the world would push to undo them.
Capitalist globalization is, after all, domestic markets, corporations, and class structure on a large scale. To really replace capitalist globalization and not just mitigate its effects, we would have to replace capitalism too. Reducing or ameliorating corporate globalization via the proposed new international institutions shouldn’t be an end in itself, but should be part of a larger project to transform the underlying root capitalist structures as well.
If we have no alternative to markets and corporations, many feel, our gains would be at best temporary. This assessment is widely held and fuels the reactionary slogan that “there is no alternative.”
To combat this mentality and underlying reality we need an alternative vision regarding international agencies and global economics, such as the proposed new institutions discussed above, but also an alternative vision regarding markets, corporations, and domestic economies, which is, of course, just participatory economics.
- Self managing workplace and consumer councils for equitable participation
- Diverse decision-making procedures seeking proportionate say for those affected by decisions
- Balanced job complexes creating just distribution of empowering and dis-empowering circumstances
- Remuneration for duration intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor, in accord with admirable moral and efficient incentive logic
- Participatory planning in tune with economics serving human well being and development
Parsoc and International Relations
So what are parecon’s implications for international relations?
First, the pressure of capitalism to conquer ever expanding market share and to scoop up ever widening sources of resources and labor is removed. There is no drive to accumulate per se, and there is no tendency to endlessly expand market share or to exploit international profit-making opportunities, because there is no profit-making. The sources of imperialism and neo colonialism, not merely some of their symptoms, are removed, at least in the country with the parecon.
If the whole world has participatory economies, then nothing structural prevents treating countries like one might treat locales - neighborhoods, counties, states - within countries. And likewise, there is no structural obstacle to approaching the production side similarly, seeing the world as one entwined international system.
Whether this would occur or not, or at what pace, are matters for the future and also affected by other dimensions of social life. However, a participatory polity, writ large into international relations, leads toward equitable and participatory international adjudication and legislation, and intercommunalism and feminism writ large, into international relations, tends to mitigate and remove the traffic in women and racial and ethnic bases for nation attacking nation. It certainly seems to be the natural and logical international long-run extension of domestic advocacy of participatory economics, kinship, polity, and community would favor internationalism, imperialism. If balanced job complexes and equitable distribution in light of the total social output and self management and justice, and feminist and intercommunalist relations are morally and economically and socially sound choices in one country, why not across countries? Likewise, if it makes sense to plan each country’s economic life in a negotiated participatory manner, and to govern its polity in a self managing way, why wouldn’t it make sense to do these things, as well, for interactions from country to country?
Of course, even with the structural obstacles emanating from capitalist relations of production gone, and even assuming cultural and political forms would also welcome internationalism and even extending the logic of domestic parecons and parsocs to a worldwide participatory economy, the remaining difficulty is the magnitude of the inter-nation gaps that would need to be overcome.
Even if one wanted to, one simply cannot sanely equilibrate income and job quality between a developed and an underdeveloped society, short of massive and time consuming campaigns of construction, development, and education. Moreover, if there are some parecons, and some capitalist economies, the situation is still more difficult, with gaps existing in development and also in social relations.
So the real issue about parecon and parsoc and international relations becomes: as countries adopt participatory economies and become participatory societies domestically, what happens to their trade and other policies with still capitalist countries?
No outcomes is inexorable. We can conceive, I suppose, of a country with a participatory economy that is rapacious regarding the rest of the world, or with a participatory polity that is authoritarian toward the rest of the world, or with feminist kinship that is sexist towardy the rest of the world, or with intercommunalism that is racist toward the rest of the world. It is very difficult to imagine, yes, but is not utterly inconceivable. What we are assessing is a policy choice.
How should a parecon interact with other countries who do not share its logic of economic organization and practice?
A good answer seems to me to be implicit in the whole earlier discussion of international global policies. The idea ought to be to engage in trade and other relations in ways that diminish gaps of wealth and power while respecting cultural integrity and adjudicating and legislating in self managing and just manner.
One obvious proposal is that the parecon trades with other countries at market prices or at parecon prices, depending on which choice does a better job of redressing wealth and power inequalities.
A second proposal would be that a parecon engage in a high degree of socially responsible aid to other countries less well off than itself.
A third proposal would be that a parecon supports movements seeking to attain participatory economic relations elsewhere.
There is every reason to think the workers and consumers of a parecon would have the kind of social solidarity with other people that would drive them to embark on just these kinds of policies…but such actions would involve a choice, made in the future, not reflect an inexorable constraint that is imposed on society by a systemic economic pressure.
The long and short of this discussion is that seeking just international relations leads, rather inexorably, toward seeking just domestic relations and vice versa. A participatory society fulfills both agendas.
Parsoc and Revolutionary Strategy
What is the connection between having a vision - whether we call it participatory society or participatory socialism - and what we actually do to create social change?
First, why the term “revolutionary,” above? The answer is simple enough. Moving from a typical contemporary society to a parsoc is a revolution. It doesn’t matter how it transpires. If it happened by a vote, if it happened via an extended insurrections, strikes, etc., if it happened by a more violent set of confrontations, or even an extended military struggle - in all cases, it is a revolution. This is because being a revolution means switching from one social system to another that is different in its defining features. And regardless of how the switch from capitalism, say, to participatory socialism/society occurs, it is definitely a change in the defining features of society.
Now, however, we can and should ask, okay, how does it happen? What do we do to make it happen? How do we get more people to desire and seek a new society? How do we organize those people so that they can manifest their collective energies effectively? How do we avoid our choices leading us astray from what we want, to something we do not want? How do we build the key features of the new society and ensure and preserve them?
Strategy is about amassing support, channelling its power into gains, solidifying gains into lasting structures, and finally building and utilizing the features of the new society. So, having the vision called parsoc should impact our strategy for activism precisely by guiding all these components of our thinking. Strategy, however, is largely contextual. What works in one place, may be foolhardy in another place. What works in one time period, but be foolhardy later. Some strategic principles and concepts are pretty generally applicable. Using our understandings of existing society and parsoc we should hopefully be able to (a) generate the general insights, and (b) develop methods, at least, applicable in cases that are more contextual and gain some operational insights into how such thinking might be done, in context.