When the Ship Comes In
Democracy is Coming to the USA
The following is a slightly revised transcript of the Testimony Presentation by Michael Albert delivered at the World Social Forum,
First, I want to thank the organizers of the WSF for having me here to give a personal testimony, and for conceiving and organizing this monumental event. I have been involved with gatherings of tens, hundreds, and even a couple of thousand folks at a time – but this event, here in
We all owe the organizers our thanks and continuing support – and for me, to be able to come here, meet so many wonderful people, learn from so many wonderful people, and even try to offer some useful comments to so many wonderful people is both humbling and inspiring. So thank you.
When I was much younger I was powerfully moved by the words of Bob Dylan's songs – which still inspire me greatly. One song that I like in particular is called When the Ship Comes In. It is a beautiful embodiment of the idea of winning a new world – our ship coming in.
More recently, I have grown to like the music of the Canadian activist poet, Leonard Cohen, and particularly a song called, Democracy Is Coming to the USA. It too is about some of the implications of winning a new world.
And so, from these inspirational poet-activists I arrived at a title for this testimony…
When the Ship Comes in, Democracy is Coming to the
I first became political in the struggle against the War in
When I was going home from that event, I had one of those moments that we all sometimes enjoy, a moment of clarification or insight. I realized I had applauded people for doing something I could do, but something I wasn't doing, and without having any compelling reason for not doing it.
Here was behavior I appreciated, and that I had no persuasive reason to be avoiding, but yet which I wasn't engaging in. I decided to transcend that situation in the future. I decided never to applaud as a spectator what I could myself do and had no very good reason for not doing. If I admire some action, I told myself, and if I can do it, and if I have no good reason to not do it, if I have nothing morally better on my agenda – then I should do it. It was a very simple realization. And thereafter I became much more politically active.
In organizing on my campus not long thereafter, I remember repeatedly trying to elicit understanding and support for our anti-Vietnam war movement, and repeatedly encountering a strange resistance.
I described the motives and suffering of the war, and was asked in response: "And what are you for?" "What goal would make war go away?" "Why do you think fighting against the war makes sense, given that war and all the associated horrors of our existence are inevitable?" I thought the questions were absurd. They annoyed me. They seemed like avoidance, and I answered harshly.
We had to end the Vietnam War…I spoke, asserted, even hollered…later there would be time for ending all war forever, for ending all the horrors of our existence. The fact that I and other anti-war organizers didn't have good answers for how all of society should be restructured to eliminate the causes of war and other pain was no excuse for not opposing the war, I felt.
I was technically right about that, of course, but as an activist I now believe I was horribly wrong. Showing that potential supporters' feelings and doubts aren't warranted or are illogical was a second best approach. It wasn't nearly as good as to respond positively, to offer a visionary answer that would address people's doubts and lead forward, that would provide hope, that would give direction, and that would address them on their own terms.
Over thirty years have passed since then. If we were to create a stack of all the speeches and talks and conversations and books and essays about how capitalism hurts people that have been offered in those thirty years – and if we were to create another stack of all the speeches and talks and conversations and books and essays about an alternative to capitalism and how it could benefit people that have been offered in those thirty years…the pile documenting misery would touch the sky, perhaps reach the moon, and the pile describing a superior option would barely leave the ground.
The question what do we want still exists. People ask it all the time. And yet even after having given so much attention to what's wrong, and so little attention to what we want, we still continue to give this fair, urgent, and insightful question minimal attention.
I think that is a huge error. I think our collective allocation of energies and insight between these two priorities, addressing what is wrong and its origins, on the one hand, and providing a vision of what we desire and its logic and implications, on the other, needs to be overhauled. We need to do more of the latter.
But why does answering the query "What do we want?" matter so much that we should allot much more time and energy to it?
Imagine I were to deliver a brilliant, moving, compelling speech about the ravages of old age. I enumerate how old age limits our options, oppresses us…and finally kills us. I document the pain and suffering, accurately, movingly. The facts are uncontestable. The reality is undeniably horrible. After all, aging limits everyone; it kills nearly everyone. I finish this emotional and accurate talk and I say, okay, now join me in a movement against horrible, oppressive murderous old age.
Obviously no one joins me…in fact, everyone thinks I am crazy. People rightly realize that to form a movement against the inevitable, against aging is literally insane. And people are aware, as well, that eloquent accurate demonstrations of pain from aging have no bearing on their conclusion to ignore appeals to organize against aging. It is absurd to join a social movement against inevitable facts of life.
What we need to realize, certainly in the U.S.A., but I suspect in most places, is that for the tens of millions of people we need to communicate with – the speeches, talks, rallies, classes, and books that we offer about poverty, indignity, war, sexism, and racism, much less about wage slavery, sound precisely like speeches against aging. They sound eloquent, they may induce tears and rage, but as to choosing our life path, they are beside the point.
People feel there is no alternative to a world in which these oppressive conditions predominate. They feel that fighting injustices is like fighting aging: it is useless. Even if we make gains they will be quickly wiped out by inevitable pressures reinstituting all the old rot.
And so people feel that our piling up descriptions of the pains induced by capitalism, the pains they most often know already from their own experience, is mere whining…and certainly not constructive. The point is, unless people believe that something better is possible, explaining the harm of capitalism, of racism, of sexism, is to their ears like explaining the pain caused by aging: it is an annoying impediment to getting on with life. And they tell us so. Get a life, they say to us in the
Recently a computer broke down in the Z offices, which is where I work, and also where I live. A fellow came to do some repairs, a young white man who owns his own small business. We talked about the bombing of
I argued that the motives of the U.S. response were to delegitimate international law, to maintain our credibility as a thug willing to destroy those who defy us, and to create a war on terrorism to justify redistributing wealth upward to the rich, and draconian repressive measures for the poor, below.
He had no trouble understanding all this, seeing and feeling the horror of bombing a country with everything short of nuclear weapons even at the possible cost of millions of human souls starved to death. But he said, Michael, you need to understand, me and people like me. We don't want to hear this. We don't want you to say this to us. To make us face it over and over.
And I said, "Rather like you wouldn't want me to detail the suffering of an earthquake?" He said, exactly. It is inevitable. There is nothing I or anyone I know can do to change it. I need to protect my family and improve their lives. What you want from me would waste my time. You are right about the facts, but it is only painful to my ears. I can't affect it. No one can affect it.
For this young computer repairperson and millions upon millions like him, like for the students I was trying to reach thirty years ago, only now much more so, a powerful impediment to becoming politically active is doubt that any better outcomes can be attained or maintained.
To build really large movements we therefore need vision.
We need vision to combat cynicism and doubt
We need vision to combat the idea that there is no alternative
We need vision to provide hope that sustains commitment, even for ourselves.
We need vision that conveys a positive and inspiring approach rather than making us sound like whiners and naysayers to people's ears.
And we need vision to know where we want to go so that our efforts will advance our aspirations rather than leading only in circles, or even worse, leading toward ends we abhor, as has happened often in the past.
So, today, after this overly long motivational introduction, I want to talk about a vision, at least for economics, that I personally advocate. This new vision is called… Participatory Economics or Parecon for short. And Parecon is built around Five Central Values, by which I mean, Parecon as an economy is literally conceived and designed to fulfill those values that we hold dear. So what are they?
The first value is uncontroversial...
Any economy inevitably impacts relations among people. What impact do we want it to have? Surely not to make people anti-social and contrary to one another. Not to cause people to have to ignore or violate each other's humanity to survive or prosper.
The value we hold dear, instead, is solidarity. We want the economy to cause people to be concerned for one another, to look out for one another's well being, to advance by virtue of collective benefit and not by way of exploiting or ignoring the plight of others.
So who would disagree that, other things being equal, an economy that produces more solidarity is better than one that produces less. I don't think anyone would, and so we have our first value, Solidarity.
The second value is also uncontroversial…
Economies affect the range of options available to us. We value having more options over having fewer options for the choice that more diversity gives us, and because we can benefit vicariously from the experiences of others who make diverse choices, and because diversity insures against our putting all our hopes on single scenarios without other possible avenues being explored and available if we need to change our choice.
So who would disagree that other things equal an economy that offers more diversity is better than one that offers less, far better than one that homogenizes outcomes thereby eliminating variety? I don't think anyone would disagree about that, and certainly not anyone here at the WSF, and so we have our second value, diversity.
The third value is more controversial, perhaps even among us...
Economies impact the distribution of income and wealth. What do we want an economy to do in this respect, if we are to deem it worthy? How much should we all get?
Various norms are possible. Remuneration could be for property. If you have a deed in your pocket that says you own machines, equipment, land – and productive capital – you get to receive as income the profits those means of production generate. But of course, we all reject that norm for remuneration on the grounds that allowing an owner like Bill Gates to have more wealth than the entire population of
Remuneration could instead be for power. You get what you can take – the more power you have, the more you get. But we reject that remunerative norm on grounds that having a society built on the ethics of Genghis Khan, or of the Mafia, or of the
Third, remuneration could be for output…and this is more subtle. Indeed, why wouldn't it be right to reward each participant with the amount that they by their work give to the economy?
The answer is because the amount that Sally adds to the economic output of society depends, in part, on many factors that have no relation to Sally's choices or actions. It depends on how much society values Sally's product, on how productive her workmates and tools are, on her innate talents and capacities – over which Sally has no control and which she was simply bequeathed.
Milton Friedman, the right-wing Noble Economist, once confronted a bunch of leftists about their views. He said, you leftists reject that someone should by virtue of being born to a capitalist parent, be born with a silver spoon, be born with huge advantages, be born rounding third base heading for home, with no catcher there to tag him out – as compared to the working class youth born at bat, against an awesome pitcher, already with two strikes, and wearing a blindfold…
But Friedman added, okay, but if we shouldn't benefit from the luck of being born to rich parents – why should we benefit from the luck of being born with good genes? Why should Mozart be paid more than Salieri? Why should Michael Jordan be paid more than a yeoman ballplayer?
Friedman thought he had given a reductio ad absurdum argument against rejecting lucky conditions as a factor for remuneration. I think, instead, that Friedman's example wasn't absurd at all, and that the left ought to agree that there should be no remuneration benefits for property inheritance, and also no remuneration benefits for genetic inheritance.
Finally, remuneration could be for effort. We reward people for the effort they expend and the hardship they endure at work.
Two people go to the fields to cut sugar cane. Suppose they both work the same length of time, with the same conditions, and the same effort. Should they get the same pay? One is much larger. Should we reward the larger person more income because at the end of the day her pile is larger than that of the smaller person?
What if one has a better set of tools? Or what if one works in a cane field that is easier to cut or with more cane per area? Do such differences warrant one cutter receiving more income than the other?
We want an economy to elicit more productive conditions and activity, to be sure, but to attain that end, we needn't reward people immorally, giving Billy more than Barbara because of size, or innate talent, or tools, though Billy and Barbara work the same length of time with the same effort and hardship.
Two people create mathematics or art, or produce bicycles or jet engines… one is more creative, is quicker, has better tools, or is producing something more valued. But they work at the same rate, in similar conditions, with the same effort. Should one get more pay than the other?
Friedman is right, there is no moral reason to remunerate output. And there is also no economic reason – higher pay can't get an individual to have better genes…nor is it the best way to elicit appropriate application of talents or tools.
Rewarding effort provides an appropriate incentive to work hard. It gives us more if we exert more. And the morality is right…we are rewarded for what we endure, what we do, not for luck or circumstance. And so we have a third value, equity.
For our fourth value, economies also impact decision making relations. I call the associated value that needs to be propelled by a good economy...
The idea is simple. Imagine a worker among many others who wants to put a picture of her family in her workplace unit. Who should make that decision? She should, unilaterally. Suppose she instead wants to put a loud radio in her workstation, blaring forth music. Who should make that decision? Certainly not her alone. Her neighboring workmates should have a say.
And just that quickly we have our norm. Economic actors should influence decisions in proportion as the decisions impact them. Sometimes a decision should be unilateral – even dictatorial. It isn't that the boss should decide dictatorially when I go to the bathroom, as now – but that I should decide that, myself. Other times one person one vote, majority rule makes most sense. Or sometimes consensus makes most sense, or other procedures.
The specific methodology is not universal. But the goal we are trying to accomplish with our choice of voting procedures is always self-management – we should impact decisions in proportion as we are affected by them.
If we don't each have proportionate influence, then obviously someone has disproportionately more and someone else has disproportionately less, but there is no moral or pragmatic justification for that. It is morally right that we control our own lives. More, we are each most suited to do so. We are each the world's foremost expert on our own desires and aspirations. And so we have a fourth value, self-management.
Our final value is one that all economists purport to share...
But with a clarification.
To be efficient is to accomplish some desired goal without wasting resources, energy, effort, or other assets. If the goal is profits and humans aren't valued, as in capitalism, then efficiency will mean using resources and other assets to generate profits regardless of impact on humans. No matter that workers suffer industrial diseases, are worn to the bone, lack dignity in their labors. No matter that pollution clogs the populace's eyes and lungs. Profits are maximized, it's efficient.
For us, in contrast, efficiency is achieving democratically sought after production and allocation while furthering the values that we hold dear. It is meeting needs and developing capacities without wasting or abusing things that we value, including, of course, ourselves.
So now we have five values – solidarity, diversity, equity, self-management, and efficiency – and our task is to settle on a set of economic institutions that can accomplish production, consumption, and allocation, consistently with advancing those five values. That's what it means, it seems to me, to try to answer the question what do we want, institutionally, for the economy. We have values…we need institutions consistent with them.
What About Old Institutions?
Why not just maintain those for our new economic vision?
First, private ownership of course grotesquely violates equity and self-management. It results in concentrations of wealth that not only don't reward effort alone, but that create a condition in which a handful of the rich own more than multitudes of the poor. It results in concentrations of power, in owners of capitalist corporations, which, again, are almost without limit. Capitalist workplaces are virtual dictatorships. There is certainly not decision-making influence for all in proportion as each is affected by decision outcomes.
So, with our values, we have to reject private ownership of the means of production as an institutional component for a worthy economy, and I hope that here, at the WSF, we can uncontroversially do so.
Second, corporate organization of course violates our values as well. It apportions to managers and other highly empowered conceptual employees (like lawyers, engineers, high status professors, and doctors) disproportionate control over outcomes and inflated and sometimes even immense income, as well.
I call this sector the coordinator class. And a point to keep in mind as we think about economic vision is that this coordinator class can become not merely an elite class, but a ruling class. All it requires for that to happen is an economy that eliminates capitalist ownership but that retains corporate organization and allocation institutions that foster this class's existence and that elevate it to dominant decision making power.
At any rate, with our values, we have to reject corporate organization which imposes hierarchies of power and reward in work, and pits classes against one another.
Third, markets, another familiar institution, violate solidarity. Markets create a context in which in order to get ahead each must out-compete others. Markets also misprice virtually every item due to ignoring effects on people external to the actual buying and selling. This is not a small problem. It is estimated that the proper price of gasoline in the
And markets also distort personalities into anti-social patterns. They foster the pursuit of profits or surplus above human well being. Markets also compel corporate organization, forcing workplaces to compete for audience, for buyers, and to reduce costs and expand sales even by limiting their own conditions of work…a task allotted to managers, thus engendering coordinator class rule.
So given our values, it seems to me that with respect to markets we have to be abolitionists. We have to be market abolitionists in almost precisely the same sense that people were earlier abolitionists regarding slavery, and certainly we can't utilize markets, which violate our values, in trying to oppose a new economic vision that will further our values.
And a final familiar economic institution used for allocation, central planning, of course violates self-management. By definition it apportions disproportionate power to planners and to those who share with planners the same conditions of elite standing including monopolized skills and training, advanced schooling and credentials, and especially empowering jobs. Down go orders, up comes reactions to them. Down go orders, up comes obedience.
So, given our values, we must reject central planning too. Thus, we have rejected markets and central planning, which are generally considered to exhaust the list of possible institutional options for an economy.
When Margaret Thatcher said there is no alternative, she of course meant there is no better alternative, and she was referring to capitalism, to capitalist institutions. No better alternative than profit-seeking, than markets, than corporate hierarchy, than all the contemptible rot that afflicts humanity in Brazil, in Thailand and Turkey, in Mexico and Italy and Russia, in South Africa, in Vietnam, in Afghanistan…and in the USA.
Margaret Thatcher is wrong. Actually, her words are idiot wind. She is full of it. In truth, there are better alternatives – and I want to advocate one. So what new institutions do we want?
First, I hope uncontroversially, I want workplace and consumer councils as the vehicle of direct input into decisions and collective organization. Such councils have arisen in every massive uprising of workers and consumers. They are a natural choice not only for that reason, but also due to their intrinsic logic and quality.
They are simply the most direct vehicle for collective expression and resolution of views at every level from the small to the very large, and are therefore the first leg on which the new economic vision, participatory economics, stands.
Workers councils for team, divisions, workplaces, whole industries and the economy. Consumer councils for living units, neighborhoods, counties, cities, states, and countries.
Balanced Job Complexes
Second, and no doubt quite a bit more controversially, I want what I call balanced job complexes. The idea is simple. Every job in any economy is a conglomeration of tasks and responsibilities. In corporate organization each worker has a batch of things to do that are quite like each other in their implications for quality of life and human empowerment.
Some have jobs that are mostly at the high end for these attributes – what I call the coordinator class of managers, engineers, lawyers, doctors, and others who enjoy great control over their own work conditions and often over the conditions of others below. They have high status, high remuneration, and great power due to largely monopolizing empowering conditions and access to levers of influence.
Many other people, however, have jobs that are in contrast overwhelmingly rote and obedient. Their work is low in fulfillment and empowerment attributes.
Switching to balanced job complexes means that we divide up tasks and responsibilities so that, instead, each person has a combination that is in its sum total effects average regarding quality of life and especially empowerment implications.
Call it sharing the burdens and benefits of work equitably, if you like – but for me the main and additional point is that it shares the conditions that are essential to having influence over outcomes equitably.
We eliminate the hierarchy of corporate division of labor and replace it with a situation in which each worker has a particular job generally different from that of other workers, of course, but comparable in its overall impact on quality of life and especially empowerment.
We don't have some who overwhelmingly make decisions and otherwise design and conceptually govern outcomes, and others who overwhelmingly only obey. Each worker has some rote, some onerous, some boring, some empowering and edifying tasks and responsibilities, in a balanced mix.
So, the second leg on which this new economy stands is balanced job complexes – not only eliminating the class division between capital and labor – but also eliminating the division between what I call the coordinator class and labor.
Remuneration for Effort
Next, I want to incorporate remuneration for effort institutionally into parecon.
Workers are entitled to a share of output in accord with the effort they expend in useful labors that help to fulfill human needs and to develop human capacities. Effort is measured by co-workers using procedures universally acceptable in society and also locally agreeable in each workplace.
Interestingly, with balanced job complexes – we all have comparably empowering and demanding work conditions…and therefore with remuneration for effort…the only reason Bill gets more pay than Barbara is if Bill works longer, or if his peers democratically by agreed procedures judge that he exerts more effort.
So the third leg on which parecon stands is remuneration for effort. A point to notice is that with balanced job complexes and remuneration for effort and sacrifice we all advance in our economic lives overwhelmingly only if others advance as well. We are better off due to improvements in the average job complex for society or due to enlargement in the social output as a whole, which we share essentially equally.
So, for example, if Andrea works part time in a coal mine (and part time elsewhere to have a social balanced job complex overall) and Andrew works part time in a publishing house (and part time elsewhere to have a socially average job complex overall)…it turns out that Andrea and Andrew will both prefer to see an investment that improves the conditions of coal mining significantly as compared to one that modestly improves the conditions of book publishing, because both of them have an interest in the overall average job complex for society, not merely in what goes on in their own workplaces. Parecon creates conditions that make solidarity the road to personal gain.
The fourth leg on which the new economic vision stands – and obviously parecon is a far more developed model than the brief picture I am presenting – is the hardest to convey succinctly.
It is called participatory planning and it replaces markets and central planning for allocation. The broad idea is simple enough.
Envision each workplace with a council, and likewise each community. Envision councils as well for larger units – for neighborhoods, counties, states, industries – and for smaller ones too, for parts of workplaces, work groups, divisions, and so on.
Envision actors individually and also collectively in their councils proposing what they wish to produce and consume, and then also assume there is a communication system that brings such information to universal attention, and that does so in appropriate ways.
Now imagine that each actor utilizes the information from all others, massaged into useful form by appropriate institutions (with balanced job complexes, of course) to adapt their own proposals. Imagine that individuals and units can get from this allocation system true indicators of real and full social costs and benefits – valid prices – and also qualitative information as needed.
The planning process is then a negotiation between actors that whittles demands and elevates supplies into a match with one another, into a plan, but that does so by a cooperative process in which each actor – individual and collective – voices their preferences, evaluates the preferences of others, and refines their choices in line with budgets and desires, until there is a meshing.
This is not a full picture, of course, but such a picture exists, for example via www.parecon.org – in the model called participatory planning, with all its component institutions and main features specified, and with its properties presented and evaluated.
No one in participatory planning has a motive to sell for the sake of sales, or to try to corner markets, or to deceive anyone. People’s incomes and circumstances can’t be enhanced in such ways, and such actions only waste and misdirect resources.
Instead, the motive of producers is to utilize their capacities to make a maximum of desirable outputs in tune with expressed preferences and also in accord with their own personal needs, both at work, and for an income based on the effort they expend. And the motive of consumers is to use their income to get products that enhance their lives, individually and collectively, but also with attention to the situation of producers.
So What Is Participatory Economic Vision?
And how is it different from what has gone under the name socialism?
Participatory economics is council democracy for producers and consumers, balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort, and participatory planning. It differs from what has gone under the name socialism because it rejects markets and central planning, it rejects corporate organization, and it incorporates balanced job complexes and self-management.
It differs because it eliminates the class division between managers, planners, doctors, engineers, lawyers, and other conceptual workers on the one hand – and rote workers on the other hand, by sharing empowering work among all actors rather than having a relative few monopolize it.
It differs because it is an economic system that truly manifests the social ideal of workers and consumers controlling their own lives – rather than espousing that ideal, but instead elevating a relatively narrow class to economic dominance.
It differs because what has in the past been called socialism ought more accurately to have been called coordinatorism – while what I am calling participatory economics carries through the most worthy ideals of the most inspiring activists who have labeled themselves socialists.
So, is Parecon Worthy?
One way to gauge this is to look at what some exemplary people in the past have asked for of a good economy, either explicitly or by implication, and see whether Parecon measures up.
So, the humanitarian civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., from my homeland the
True compassion is more than flinging a coin at a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
Participatory economics, or parecon meets King's admonition. It eliminates King's hated edifice of unjust distribution by eradicating private ownership as well as class division based on access to power at work. In parecon equity is attained. We each have income in accord with our efforts, and unjust disparities of wealth and circumstance are unknown.
The famous capitalist ideologue Adam Smith, wrote…
The understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments ... the man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding ... and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to be ...
The implication is that we need an economy that doesn't force most people to be "as stupid and ignorant" as it can reduce them to being.
And indeed, whereas in capitalism the educational task is to dumb down 80% of the populace to be prepared to endure boredom and indignity in rote and obedient work at which they exert no wisdom and intelligence and over which they have no control, in a participatory economy the rules we fill, the tasks we do, and the responsibilities we have call for us to have had our skills and talents maximally respected and enlarged in our educations, and then at work utilize those talents, skills, and insights to the greatest degree possible consistent with showing the same respect and opportunity for all.
In the same spirit, the writer and craftsperson William Morris, who lived in the latter half of the 1800s in
We seek a condition of society in which there should be neither rich nor poor, neither master nor master's man, neither idle nor overworked, neither brain-sick brain workers, nor heartsick hand workers, in a word, in which all would be living in equality of condition and would manage their affairs unwastefully, and with the full consciousness that harm to one would mean harm to all—the realization at last of the meaning of the word commonwealth.
And parecon meet's Morris's aspirations because it disperses circumstances at work so that we each have a balanced mix of tasks and responsibilities regarding both the quality of our lives and the power that we can exert. We are all inspired brain workers AND enlivened handworkers and we are so in appropriate measure, and, more, we all impact the decisions of our economy in proportion as they affect us, not out of someone's kind gesture, but because such fairness and dignity is built into the very texture and pattern of our economy. Morris's commonwealth becomes not only a beautiful desire, but an institutional reality.
Similarly, the less known but highly insightful American playwright Barbara Garson wrote…
As it happens, there are no columns in standard double entry book-keeping to keep track of satisfaction and demoralization. There is no credit entry for feelings of self-worth and confidence. There are no monthly, quarterly, or even annual statements of pride and no closing statement of bankruptcies when the worker finally comes to feel that after all he couldn't do anything else, and doesn't deserve anything better.
And to fulfill Garson's entreaty, parecon is precisely designed to respect and account for the true human and social costs and benefits of all economic transactions both on those immediately involved, and also throughout society. Satisfaction and demoralization, self-worth and confidence…these and other measures of the true human and social implications of economic activity become the central entries of participatory economic accounting. Participatory allocation is no longer the mere bean-counting and profit-mongering that Garson's insights reject, but becomes the translation of people's wills into outcomes that account for and honor people's true needs and aspirations.
The great British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote…
All who are not lunatics are agreed about certain things. That it is better to be alive than dead, better to be adequately fed than starved, better to be free than a slave…humankind has become so much one family that we cannot insure our own prosperity except by insuring that of everyone else. If you wish to be happy yourself, you must resign yourself to seeing others also happy.
And parecon's participatory planning process, coupled with balanced job complexes and remuneration for effort inscribe Russell's request for solidarity into the very roles of economic life. In capitalism even a very social and humane person, to personally advance, must step on and otherwise violate others. To advance you must trample others, or at least you must ignore the plight of those you leave behind.
In contrast, in parecon, even a greedy, anti-social person, to get ahead must be sensitive to the well being and condition of others. In parecon, it is structurally build into the roles we fulfill that we improve our lives in cooperation, not at each other's expense.
The opening night speaker of WSF 2002, Noam Chomsky, has written…
The task for a modern industrial society is to achieve what is now technically realizable, namely, a society which is really based on free voluntary participation of people who produce and create, live their lives freely within institutions they control, and with limited hierarchical structures, possibly none at all.
Chomsky's wish to minimize authoritarian structures that limit people's control over their lives is precisely the purpose of council democracy and of participatory self-management as a norm of decision making and participation. To meet Chomsky's standard, Parecon reduces authoritarian impositions as a central defining feature of its institutions, rather than this aim being a mere addendum, or being excluded entirely as it is now in capitalism.
Finally, the 20th Century Dutch revolutionary Anton Pannekoek wrote…
Now the problem arises of how to unite freedom and organization: how to combine mastery of the workers over the work with the binding up of all this work in a well-planned social entirety. How to organize production, in every shop as well as over the whole of world economy, in such a way that they themselves as parts of a collaborating community regulate their work.
And Pannekoek's aim highlights what participatory economics adds to the revolutionary councilist heritage: an allocation system that cooperatively coordinates the wills of producers and consumers, that apportions appropriate influence for each, that pursues individual and collective human fulfillment and development, and that accomplishes these aims in accord with values we hold dear – diversity, equity, solidarity, and self-management.
If it's worthy, what are some of parecon's strategic implications?
A confusion among some people on the left exists about the word "reform." What the word reform is confused with is the word reformism.
A reform is any change in the existing system which doesn't alter its defining relations. Ending a war. Winning higher wages. Winning affirmative action. Even abolishing the IMF. Reformism is fighting for such changes with the presupposition that there will never be any change in defining relations, rather than with the intention of bringing about such basic changes.
Seeking revolution, which is the opposite of being reformist, to me means seeking to replace private ownership, remuneration for power and property, corporate organization, elite decision making, and markets with council democracy, remuneration for effort, balanced job complexes, self-management, and participatory planning.
What we need if we are to be on a path toward fundamental changes is to win non-reformist reforms. A non-reformist reform is a change that we seek and hopefully win which improves the lives of badly-off constituencies in the present, but also creates conditions conducive to winning still more gains in the future, in a trajectory leading to our ultimate goals.
Participatory economics, or parecon, helps us conceive non-reformist reforms regarding
• income distribution
• payment methods
• decision making methods
• workplace organization
• social budgeting
• allocation more broadly
• and many other facets of social life
In other words…as a goal it can inform our strategic choices of issues, demands, and of course the consciousness we are trying to advance. I don't have time for much more on strategy…but I want to mention at least one more implication.
Even more dramatically, the movement employs structures and norms familiar and horrific to workers from their daily lives – corporate organization, top down decision making – rather than new norms and structures that would empower workers.
An implication of advocating parecon is that just as we struggle to rid our movements of racism and sexism…so we should struggle to rid our movements of capitalist ways of making decisions, organizing labor, and remunerating it.
We should work to incorporate council organization, balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort, and self-management in our own institutions. We should not put up with having classist culture or organization, because such features undermine our credibility, impoverish our movement lives, repel working people, and reduce our capacity to develop real working class allegiances and program.
Council democracy, balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort, and participatory self-management aren't just distant goals, they are structures we can enact in our lives and especially in our institutions, to make them models and to make them empowering to working class people.
The nineteenth century English poet Alfred Tennyson told us to…
Ring out old shapes of foul disease.
Ring out the narrowing lust for gold.
Ring out the thousand wars of old.
Ring in the thousands years of peace.
That was good advice.
The great 20th century Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci wrote…
It is necessary with bold spirit and in good conscience to save civilization… We must halt the dissolution that corrupts the roots of human society. The bare and barren tree can be made green again. Are we not ready?
That's even better advice.
For the economy I want workers and consumers to have control over their economic lives. I want everyone to have fair conditions that fully utilize their talents and potentials. I want incomes that accord with the efforts people expend in their labors.
I want what is produced, by whom, under what conditions, and with who consuming the result all determined to enhance human well-being and development and all decided by the people who are involved in proportion as they are affected. I want an end to hierarchies of power and wealth and to class division that subordinates most actors to an elite few…and to accomplish all these ends I favor the institutions of participatory economics -- worker and consumer councils, remuneration for effort, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning.
This means I want revolutionary change, and I advocate it positively…not solely indicating what I am against. I am not merely fighting a good fight. I am fighting to win, because we can and we must.
Exploitation, alienation, poverty, disempowerment, fragmenting and debilitating labor, economic dislocation, production for profit, harsh homelessness, starvation, globalization, degradation – these constraints on our lives are not like aging or gravity.
They arise from institutional relations established and maintained by human beings. New institutions, also established and maintained by human beings, can generate vastly superior outcomes.
Defining and working to attain those new institutions, including winning non-reformist reforms on a trajectory of change leading toward our ultimate goals, ought to be our economic agenda.
If I am wrong about the worthiness of the participatory economic institutions that I have described – if someone should demonstrate that parecon's institutions somehow fail to accomplish necessary economic functions or that they have social or personal by-products that outweigh their benefits – then I would simply return to the drawing board.
I would not settle for no vision, but would seek a new vision because to overcome capitalism, to win a new world, one thing that we most certainly need is shared, popular, accessible, compelling, and inspiring economic vision – whether that vision is participatory economics or is something else.
This was supposed to be a personal testimony. And so I have to offer my apologies. I didn't really offer much that was personal about myself, trying instead to make a case, however succinctly, for participatory economics. I am happy to become more personal, however, should that be appropriate, in the question and answer period, which is my favorite part of any talk, in any event.
But to close, I will offer a personal comment… remembering that my life changed from its natural track to resistance and to revolution due to the anti-war movement of the 1960s -- let me end with a poem.
I put this poem on the frontispiece of a book I wrote about twenty years ago, and it is still, and will always be appropriate for me to recite.
The title of the poem is
Neither high nor very far.
Neither emperor, nor king.
You are only a little milestone
which stands at the edge of the Highway.
To people passing by
you point the right direction and stop them from getting lost.
You tell them of the distance
for which they must still journey.
Your service is not a small one,
And people will always remember you.
The author of the poem was Ho Chi Minh.
I believe that equity, solidarity, diversity, and self-management are coming to
I even believe that equity, solidarity, diversity, and self-management are coming to the
We need only commit ourselves, and seek the best of ourselves -- and it will happen.
Thank you…and if we have the time and the means, I would certainly love to relate to questions or comments.