Solidarity and Participatory Economics
[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
There are a number of Solidarity Economy and of Parecon people participating in Resoc. I wonder if we can try to determine the relation of these perspectives, and the possibility for, well, solidarity! I wrote an essay some time back that I would like to now adapt - here - for your attention. I hope you find it worth considering.
It seems to me that the SE movement seeks to unite what Ethan Miller calls "thousands of diverse, locally-rooted, grassroots economic projects ... such as worker, consumer, and housing cooperatives, community currencies, urban gardens, fair trade organizations, intentional communities, and neighborhood self-help associations" or "islands of alternatives in a capitalist sea."
The glue for unity is the idea of economic projects fostering solidarity and democracy. The connection they seek is "horizontal networking" including "webs of mutual recognition and support." The aim of all this is in Miller's words to "generate a social movement and economic vision capable of challenging the global capitalist order."
This certainly seems like it would be a movement parecon advocates would support and wish to relate to, indeed a movement parecon advocates would like to be a part of, and, I would hope, vice versa. Let's see if we can determine if that is right, or if there are barriers to unity that need to be addressed.
Participatory economics proposes a set of key institutions - workers and consumers councils, self managed decision making, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of work, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning - that are precisely conceived to establish an economy that generates by its operation both solidarity and democracy, and even further, empathy and self management, all of which rank high as SE values.
So, given the congeniality of shared purpose that ought to unite solidarity and participatory economics, I have to wonder, why haven't the two gotten together, or more together, since there some ties already?
Solidarity economists say they have in common with one another "a thirst for justice, a logic of participation, creativity, and processes of self-management and autonomy." What could be more in tune, as well, with the shared commitments of participatory economics? From my perspective, at least, so far this seems like a perfect match.
The difficulty in getting more together must rest, if it has any basis at all, in some additional commitments of the solidarity economy folks, or, one might as easily say, in some additional commitments of parecon, that are at odds.
Solidarity economy advocates seek "self-organized relationships of care, cooperation, and community." So do advocates of parecon, so that is not a problem.
Miller quotes J.K. Gibson-Graham, who asks, "If we viewed the economic landscape as imperfectly colonized, homogenized, systematized, might we not find openings for projects of noncapitalist invention? Might we not find ways to construct different communities and societies, building upon what already exists?"
Parecon is very much about constructing workplaces and communities that embody the seeds of the future in the present, though it is also about fighting to alter existing institutions, as well. There is no problem lurking here, either, I think.
But then we come to what may be a difficulty. Miller says, "At its core, solidarity economics rejects one-size-fits-all solutions and singular economic blueprints, embracing instead a view that economic and social development should occur from the bottom up, diversely and creatively, crafted by those who are most affected."
Under one reading of this sentence, parecon has no disagreement with it, and indeed asserts the same point, very aggressively. But, Miller might mean something else - as might you and other SE folks - I don't know. If, for example, the above formulation implies that we don't need certain key institutions if we are to have an economy that is participatory, engenders solidarity, and is equitable, and in which there is real democracy and even self management, then I would have to disagree just as I think most advocates of parecon would.
Here is a way to think of it. Solidarity economy is about specifying the minimum list of institutions necessary for an economy to allow those most affected to "craft" the outcomes they desire in a context of solidarity. Parecon seeks that same self-management, but notes that some structures are essential to attaining it, and others inevitably block it.
How do you react to these three claims, I wonder:
1. An economy of the future will have an allocation system. All economies do. If it is markets or central planning, then that economy will not be a solidarity or a participatory economy.
2. An economy of the future will have a division of labor. All economies do. And if this includes sequestering empowering work into the hands of a few while most do only rote and obedient work, that future economy will not be a solidarity or a participatory economy.
3. To have solidarity requires classlessness. Solidarity won't be extensive if some own the economy and others only labor in it. It won't be extensive if some rule the economy and others only obey in it.
We agree that we need an economy that is the product of the will of its members and we also agree that we need an economy that is created by an open and hugely democratic process.
But I want to add, and I don't know whether SE agrees or not, that we also need an economy that arrives at institutions that foster our stated aims since if we don't have that the aims will only be nice rhetoric, disappearing once contrary institutions push them aside.
Miller quotes Marcos Arruda of the Brazilian Solidarity Economy Network saying that "a solidarity economy does not arise from thinkers or ideas; it is the outcome of the concrete historical struggle of the human being to live and to develop him/herself as an individual and a collective."
I find this way of presenting what I hope is Arruda's point a bit strange, and I wonder what you think about it. How can solidarity economy activists be critical of markets and of private ownership unless they have thought about these, very carefully, and not only experienced the pain without thinking about it? A huge number of people experience alienation or poverty but don't reject their causes - markets, capital, or other adverse institutional structures - because they haven't thought seriously about the origins of the ills or, I suspect more often, they think there is no alternative to these institutions, having not thought closely about that. People thinking, and the ideas that emerge from people thinking, are not our enemy, unless it is too few people doing the thinking or it is poor ideas they generate.
In fact, most anything humans do arises in considerable part from their ideas which are often initially held or at least made coherent and presentable for assessment by only a few folks. It seems to me the kind of sentiment Arruda offers, and many SE people also express, which may be part of what blocks better relations, may have a confusion in it. He wants to say, I think - or perhaps I should say, I hope - that solidarity economics is not imposed by a few on the many and is not an abstract creation of impossible features, but, instead, is a well conceived campaign rooted in what is both possible and desirable.
But Arruda's words instead seem to me to have, whether he means them this way or not, an underlying inclination to denigrate thought and to imply that if something is thought through carefully, and especially if something is debated, proposed, and then strongly advocated with careful reasoning, it must be elitist. This seems to me to be a suicidal perspective that rejects good thinking rather than only rejecting elitist thinking.
More, in fact we have all been engaging in activism for quite some time now. It may be that it is the thinking side of the balance between thought and action, not the activism side, that has gotten too short shrift, at least when we are talking about putting forth an alternative to capitalism, markets, corporations, etc. Plenty of thought, often quite redundant, most certainly addresses what's wrong with the current world or proposing short-term changes that will ameliorate pains. But not much thought, when you consider it, addresses what we want in place of the current world, not just to ameliorate pain today, but to replace existing structures with liberation tomorrow.
Miller notes that "unlike many alternative economic projects that have come before, solidarity economics does not seek to build a singular model of how the economy should be structured, but rather pursues a dynamic process of economic organizing in which organizations, communities, and social movements work to identify, strengthen, connect, and create democratic and libratory means of meeting their needs."
Again, I think maybe I don't get it. First off, no proposer of an economic model has ever to my knowledge suggested that all economies should in all features mimic the model. In fact, there has been no model offered, ever, that specifies all features of an economy. Models typically, instead, specify some key institutions. The advocate of a model says that an economy we would like - a solidarity economy or a participatory economy, for example - needs to flexibly incorporate those highlighted features if it is to achieve what it seeks.
For example, if you want classlessness, the pareconist says, you can't have markets, central planning, private ownership of productive property, or corporate divisions of labor because those features impose class division and class rule. And, further, having rejected those options, after thinking carefully about their implications and measuring them against shared values, parecon offers in their place participatory planning by self managed workers and consumers councils, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued work, and balanced job complexes. Isn't this doing exactly what it means to pay serious attention to our experiences so as to distill from them insights bearing on how we ought to conduct economics?
If solidarity economy advocates would agree that it is, then there is every reason to hope for increased relations between these two approaches. But it will be hard to have really productive ties if solidarity economy advocates say that the minute someone argues on behalf of some particular type of institution, say balanced job complexes or participatory planning, arguing that this is part of what people should strive to create instead of simply advocating whatever plurality of diverse choices people freely make, then that person has foregone connection to building a better economy. I have encountered both types of attitude in my own experiences with solidarity economy advocates, so I am not sure which is more prevalent.
Suppose movements in some place and time work to "identify, strengthen, connect, and create democratic and liberatory means of meeting their needs," to use Miller's description. Suppose they then think over their experiences and become convinced that to accomplish meeting needs consistent with their values requires certain new institutions. Would these activists be wrong to think things through in such a manner? If they did so, should they not say what they conclude? And isn't such a conclusion quite plausibly correct? And if it is correct, wouldn't it help to inform others about it when they also try to develop experiments in better economic organization or try to win changes in existing workplaces and communities in accord with better economic organization?
Suppose a group sets up a workers coop of the sort that solidarity economy tries to link. These activists work long and hard and discover that despite all participants' commitments to full democracy, and even to full self0management, as long as old corporate style divisions of labor are in place, these virtues are stunted and in time even obliterated. So the members then consider this realization and conceive of a new division of labor, let's say balanced job complexes, and enact them with great success. Wouldn't it make sense that they make this known and urge that this new way of apportioning labor be incorporated, as much as it can be in current conditions, into future experiments in better economy, to avoid the experiments succumbing to internal class divisions?
Suppose as time passes and initial euphoria and intensity decline and these activists endure considerable backsliding and difficulty in their attempts to act in a solidaritous manner, internally and regarding those who relate to their product. Unlike others who experience this trend, however, this group thinks hard about it and decides it isn't due to a flaw in their commitments, or to some kind of law of nature or society limiting possibilities, but is instead an imposition from the market pressures all around them. So they then also think through the operation of the market as it imposes on them behaviors contrary to their inclinations and conducive to old style decision-making and divisions of labor, and they come up with a critique of the market and with a proposal for an alternative to it, let's say participatory planning. Shouldn't they make their judgments known to others, too? Shouldn't they urge, hoping for debate and discussion to test their insights, that experiments in the construction of solidarity economics need to be anti-market and to understand its ill effects and work on by-passing them, ameliorating them, or even replacing markets to eliminate those effects? If the answer to all these questions is yes, then, again, it seems to me that solidarity economics and parecon ought to be able to break bread and much more.
Miller quotes Marcos Arruda, once again, saying this time that "Innovative practices at the micro level can only be viable and structurally effective for social change if they interweave with one another to form always-broader collaborative networks and solidarity chains of production-finance-distribution-consumption-education-communication." Miller then adds, "this is, perhaps, the heart of solidarity economics -- the process of networking diverse structures that share common values in ways that strengthen each."
Okay, this is excellent, is my reaction. But shouldn't the common values be made explicit and doesn't producing in a good way mean that we have to have an opinion about what organizational structures and methods in fact constitute producing in a good way? And doesn't the same hold for distribution/allocation, and consumption? And, as well, shouldn't we be fighting for improvements in the larger economy too, in workplaces and in communities, as well as constructing our own new projects?
Solidarity economy or participatory economy? My answer is both and I wonder if you agree. Solidarity economy is way ahead in developing ties among practitioners of change and also in addressing highly detailed aspects of current experiments in change. Unity between these movements, solidarity economy which is quite large and parecon which is much smaller, would help parecon greatly regarding understanding and elaborating current ties and connections, and regarding committing to them, as well. But I think participatory economics has something to lend this potential union, too. Parecon is out in front at having seriously assessed experiences in alternative economy and extracted from them insights about the central logic both of markets and capitalism, and especially of a better alternative economy for local experiments as well as writ large.
Parecon certainly urges the need to build experiments in future organization today, which is what solidarity economy centrally emphasizes. No problem there.
Parecon also urges the need to organize and fight for changes inside existing economic institutions, which I suspect solidarity economy agrees is centrally important, even though it doesn't itself emphasize that. There is probably no problem here, either.
Parecon urges that a few key institutions are necessary if an economy is to foster solidarity, equity, self-management, etc., and that certain others must be rejected, if those are the goals. This, however, may be a problem, though I can't see why it ought to be. Pareconists should have no problem, at least in my view, relating to a movement that contains lots of people who think differently about these matters, or who even think markets or private ownership have a place in the future, supposing the people who think that are open to discussing these claims. Is solidarity economy equally open to incorporating and relating to the work and ideas of people who do have strong ideas about future institutions, both those favored and those rejected? If so, let's get together!
And for yourself, I wonder how you react, yourself, to parecon's proposed workers and consumers' self managing councils, balanced, job complexes, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of conditions of work, and participatory planning?
Could you see SE continuing to pursue its many diverse experiments and projects, but developing, over time, a commitment to these core institutions as being essential if a new economy is to be truly solidaritous and self managing?