ParEcon Questions & Answers
Government/Polity and ParEcon
Would a government exist in parecon separate from the economy?
What we call political institutions today – local, state and national governments – actually perform both political and economic functions. Because our economy consists of a market system, and markets will lead to the production of few if any public goods, and there are certain public goods whose non-production is so unacceptable that every market economy has got to substitute some other decision making mechanism for the market mechanism regarding these public goods, in our economy local, state, and national governments have to also double as economic institutions for the purchase of minimal amounts of certain public goods – for which they collect taxes.
But as much as the economic decisions of our “political” institutions dominate their time and our interest in them, they do debate and decide other more “political” things as well, like war and peace, whether drugs are legal or not, what the rules and procedures of the criminal justice system will be, whether America the Beautiful or the Star Spangled Banner will be the national anthem, immigration policy, etc. My ideas about what kinds of political institutions and procedures would be best for making these kinds of political decisions run along democratic, participatory lines.
That is a whole additional discussion: What are the most desirable political institutions and why. But the local, state, and national consumer federations would repossess the economic functions that have fallen by default to institutions we call political – by default because market economies provide no public goods.
Okay, so what kind of government would go well with a parecon?
To ideally address the practical symbiosis between a desirable economy and polity, one would like to first describe a new political vision and then examine the interface between it and participatory economics.
While positive political vision has not yet been spelled out in the same degree as participatory economics has, Stephen Shalom, among others, has tackled the task in his preliminary presentation of Parpolity, available on the internet via the Participatory Society subsite of ZNet.
Parpolity is a political system seeking to further the same values as parecon and to be compatible with it. It successfully displays many general characteristics that a good political system would likely embody.
Does it have any heritage, any roots in the past?
The roots of parpolity are arguably anarchist but it has had to develop some insights of its own, as well..
Michael Bakunin, the Russian anarchist from whom many of the most insightful commitments of anarchism first originate, wrote,
And in the same vein, the French anarchist Proudhon wrote,
The problem that arises for serious people responding to these and many other anarchist formulations, is that the inspiring words do not specify how we escape the regimentation and subordination typical of state and government. They don’t tell us how to have each citizen and community determine its own actions and engagements freely and without external imposition. How do we accomplish legislation of shared norms, implementation of collective programs, and adjudication of disputes so that humans are not reduced to atomistic units clashing and jangling but instead compose a society where the actions of each person collectively benefit the rest?
Perhaps not, but why do we need any more detailed political vision than just anti authoritarian aspirations?
One thug with a club can disrupt and start on a downward spiral even the most humane gathering. And, regrettably, there will always be some people who due to liquor, jealousy, arrogant belief, self interest, a degenerate psychology, or whatever other attribute become thuggish, at least at times.
Likewise, a dispute that has no means of resolution often will escalate into a struggle that vastly transcends the scale of its causes, whether the escalating dispute occurs between individuals, families, communities, or nations.
More generally, repeatedly starting our social projects and engagements from scratch without being able to take for granted a set of previously agreed responsibilities and practices would consign everyone to endless negotiation but little implementation. Do I have some known responsibilities which I cannot abrogate, or is everything I do up for grabs with each new day? And likewise for you?
Put differently, while it is true that even the most desirable mutually agreed roles and responsibilities will to some degree limit our range of options, they can also make the list of all options that we can successfully pursue vastly larger than were their structures absent.
In other words, we want to be free from imposed violations of our desires, but we want this only for those of our desires that are consistent with others having the same freedoms as we do and with preserving previously agreed role responsibilities that permit the diversity of our current and future lives.
The idea that everyone should be able to do whatever they please regardless of past agreements is in this view a surefire recipe for people acting in ways that unreasonably reduce other people’s options. If I refuse my previously agreed roles and responsibilities, willy nilly, it likely throws into question and perhaps completely disrupts other people’s options as well. I should not have that right.
So we need to accomplish political functions in accord with our values via institutions that maintain mutually agreed continuity. The question for political vision is what are those institutions?
For Economics, parecon rejects a lot before embarking on something new. Is parpolity similar, or does it user familiar institutions from the past?
Parpolity is similar to parecon in having to regretably invent rather than coopt...it must create new vision, not just adapt old approaches. One failed answer to political vision, for example, comes from the perspective called Marxism Leninism. Stalinism was an extreme but also a logical extension of Leninism. The typically counterproductive experience of Marxist-Leninist political parties out of power is perfectly consistent with the systematic suppression of democratic political life carried out by Marxist-Leninist parties in power.
The "dictatorship of the proletariat" translates virtually seamlessly into the dictatorship of the party and of the politburo and in the worst case even of the lone in some cases megalomaniacal dictator. That this could ever have been equated with a desirable form of political life shall always be a stain on the political history of "the Left." Outlawing all but a single "vanguard" party ruled by the norms of "democratic centralism" has nothing to do with furthering democracy but instead guarantees democracy’s subversion.
Democratic centralist political institutions systematically impede participatory impulses, promote popular passivity, nurture fear, and breed authoritarianism, bureaucratism, and corruption all against the far better aspirations of many Leninists. What else can we expect when external opposition is routinely outlawed and the party leadership is able to suppress and manipulate internal opposition by transferring members between branches to provide themselves a majority in every branch and cell? The practice and the prescriptions of Leninism have little to do with attaining a better polity much less a polity in accord with the aspirations implicit in the earlier quotes from anarchists. These questions are taken up in more detail much later in this book, in chapters dealing with strategies for change.
But Western-style electoral "democracy," which is another answer to the political vision question, while arguably better then the Leninist one party state, is nonetheless still a far cry from participatory democracy. Highly unequal distributions of wealth stack the deck before the political card game begins. Citizens choose from "pre-selected" candidates effectively screened for compatibility by society's corporate elites. And even if these problems within a Western style democracy were overcome by removing private ownership of productive assets--participatory democracy requires more than infrequently voting for a representative to carry out our political activity largely alienated from us and often while manipulating us.
That is, while election of representatives is arguably a plausible and sometimes even an essential part of true participatory democracy, frequent and regular referenda on important political propositions and policies at every level of government accompanied by a full airing of competing views would presumably be at least as important as voting for candidates. The question arises, what mechanisms would permit and promote engagement, deliberation, and then decision making such that all actors have appropriate say whether directly or through representatives, and so that essential rights are always preserved with justice served?
Okay, so what do we need for a parpolity?
After rejecting Leninism and parliamentary democracy, arguably the first thing to realize about a good political system is that we should not expect political life to disappear in a desirable society. Instead we should expect to see the structure of political life transformed and its worth to citizens intensified.
Politics will no longer represent a means by which privileged groups perpetuate their domination. Nor will oppressed constituencies have to battle against political norms that preserve an unjust status quo while operating mostly outside society’s polity altogether, whether cynically or as an opposition. But the fact that a desirable polity won’t entail continuous and sustained dissent won’t mean there will be a lack of spirited disagreement about social choices.
While the goal of social diversity dictates that competing conceptions should be implemented by their adherents whenever possible, there will be many times when one program will have to be implemented at the expense of others. The problem of "public choice" will therefore not disappear, and since a desirable society will kindle our participatory impulses, there is every reason to expect political debates to sometimes heat up rather than tone down.
Consider what Shalom has to say about the kinds of issues that will still inspire debate and dispute:
If that list doesn’t make the point, Shalom continues:
After which Shalom summarizes,
The broadest goals, if not the structural means of embodying a new polity, are already pretty well understood and enunciated. In Noam Chomsky's words,
Nice values, what about institutions?
A central question is, what institutional vehicles best afford and even guarantee people such an opportunity?
Ultimately, political controversies must be settled by some kind of tally of people’s preferences. And obviously such tallies will be better informed the greater access voters have to relevant information. One condition of real democracy is therefore that groups with competing opinions all have access to effective means of communicating their views. Democratization of political life must include democratization of the flow of information and commentary via a new media of the sort discussed later in this book.
Participatory democracy requires not only democratic access to a transformed media and the possibility for people to form and utilize a plethora of single-issue political organizations to make their views known, but also, at least in all likelihood, a pluralism of political parties with different social agendas. There is no reason to think, in other words, that having a good economy or society means people won’t disagree about major matters in ideological ways.
The fact that there is no hierarchy of power or income doesn’t preclude differences of viewpoint and people wanting to group with others of like mind to advocate their shared preferences. If we reflect briefly on the history of political life within the left and the consequences of attempting to ban parties, factions, or any form of political organization that people wish to avail themselves of, it should be clear that bans are anathema to democracy, or more aptly, are the stuff of repression and authoritarianism.
But can we go further than the above quite broad and very general intimations of possible features of a desirable polity? Well, we can at least reproduce some of Stephen Shalom’s thoughts about political vision, which seem to me quite instructive and valuable.
You are going to start over with values, aren't you?
You bet. Yes, let's start with values, and, saving us a lot of time, parecon’s economic values make not only good economic sense, but with a little tweaking good political sense too, so we can do this quite quickly.
Surely a polity should produce solidarity not anti-sociality and should value and generate diversity rather than homogenizing options.
Equity is an economic concept that addresses the distribution of rewards. For polity, the analogue of equity is arguably justice which is about the distribution of rights and responsibilities, including redress for violations of social welfare which could indeed involve material recompense.
Self management is arguably more a political value than an economic one, in its origins and logic and is certainly a viable and worthy political aim.
So borrowing and adapting from parecon, for politics we have solidarity, diversity, justice, and self management which taken together also imply other more familiar values such as liberty, participation, and tolerance without which accomplishing the four key values would be impossible.
And political institutions, what about them?
In Shalom’s conception of a desirable polity’s institutions there are matters of legislation, adjudication, and collective implementation. For legislation Shalom advocates “nested councils” where “the primary-level councils will include every adult in the society. The number of members in these primary-level councils [might plausibly] be somewhere between 25-50.”
Thus everyone is in one of these basic political units, situated at the lowest level where people live, presumably. Some folks are elected to higher level councils as well since in Shalom’s parpolity vision, “each primary-level council will choose a delegate to a second-level council” where “each second-level council [would again] be composed of 20-50 delegates.” And this would proceed again, for another layer, and another, “until there is one single top-level council for the entire society.” The delegates to each higher council “would be charged with trying to reflect the actual views of the council they came from.” On the other hand, “they would not be told ‘this is how you must vote,’ for if they were then the higher council they were attending would not be a deliberative body.”
Shalom suggests that
He clarifies, perhaps contrary to most people’s intuitions, that “a council size of 25, with 5 layers, assuming half the population consists of adults, can accommodate a society of 19 million people; a council size of 40, again would need 5 layers to accommodate 200 million people; a 50-person council could accommodate 625 million people by the fifth level. With a sixth level, even a 25-person council could accommodate a society of about half a billion people,” thus making a case that his layered councils don’t involve near so many layers as to be precluded for that reason.
What happens in these political councils? Legislation is enacted which is to say voting on norms and collective agendas takes place. The councils are deliberative and public. The idea is to utilize them to approximate as much as possible, within the limits of the sensible use of time, the importance of particular issues, and the scope of issues impact, self managing inputs to decision making. Sometimes higher level councils vote and decide, sometimes they deliberate and report back and lower levels vote and decide, and so on.
The exact combination or range of combinations of voting at the base versus in higher level councils and of procedures for presenting, debating, and tallying viewpoints is a degree of political detail we don’t have to agree about in a book such as this. Shalom has begun considering the issues at stake, and no doubt more needs to be done. Here it is enough to say that the legislative branch is built on face to face nested councils with open deliberation using methods of information transfer, debate, and tallying of preferences aimed at providing all actors self managing say over the decisions that affect them.
Shalom’s discussions of the role not only of tallying votes but also of contributing time, energy, and funds to political struggles as part of the process of guaranteeing self management, and of the dynamics of representation and deliberation are all highly instructive, but again beyond what we need to include here.
On the one hand, parecon takes care of a lot of this and, in doing so, helps us see what is the truely political element of such undertakings. Think of delivering the mail on the one hand, and of investigating and trying to constrain outbreaks of disease on the other hand, or think of environmental protection functions, if you prefer.
All of these involve a production and allocation aspect which is handled by the structures of participatory economics, including balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and participatory decision making. The worker’s council delivering mail is in these senses not particularly different from the workers council producing bicycles, nor is the center for disease control worker’s council very different at least in its economic respects from a typical hospital, and likewise for the Environmental Protection Agency and a typical research institute.
But in another sense the three examples are different from their parecon counterparts, and particularly the latter two. The Post Office, CDC, and EPA operate with the sanction of the polity and carry out tasks that the polity mandates. Particularly in the case of the latter two, executive agencies act with political authority that permits them to investigate and sanction others where typical economic units would have no such rights and responsibilities.
So the executive branch is largely about establishing politically mandated functions and responsibilities which are then typically carried out largely within and by the norms of the participatory economy, but with a political aspect defining their agendas and perhaps conveying additional powers. If it aids understanding, this is more or less analogous to the fact that churches will operate in the economy for their inputs and perhaps some of their outputs, but largely with a cultural/religious definition, and similarly for other institutions that have extra-economic logic.
Presumably the means for an executive branch to mandate its agendas and establish lasting mechanisms to oversee and implement them would be largely those of the legislative branch, on the one hand, and of the parecon on the other, as well as establishing entities like the CDC, etc.
But then what about a judiciary?
As Shalom asserts, “Judicial systems often address three kinds of concerns: judicial review (are the laws just?), criminal justice (have specific individuals violated the laws?), and civil adjudication (how are disputes between individuals resolved?).”
For the first Shalom offers a court system more or less like the supreme court functions now, with tiers at the levels of the councils adjudicating disputes arising over council choices. Is this the best or the only approach and can it be engineered to further self management? I don’t know. It certainly merits close consideration.
For the second function including criminal matters as well as civil adjudication, Shalom proposes a court system modestly different from what we have now plus police that of course have balanced job complexes, enjoy remuneration for effort and sacrifice, etc.
Regarding having a police function and force in a desirable society--which is actually for many people more controversial than matters of courts, etc.--I agree with Shalom, and don’t really see any alternative or any intractable problems. There will be crimes in a good society, sometimes violent and even horribly evil, and investigation and capture of culprits will be serious matters requiring special skills. Thus, it seems quite obvious that some people will do that kind of work with special rules and features, no doubt, to ensure they do it well and consistent with social values, just as some people will spend some of their work time flying airplanes or doing other difficult and demanding jobs with special rules and features, no doubt, due to the special qualities of the jobs and to ensure that they are done well.
The contrary idea that policing would be unneeded simply assumes away crime without any reason to do so. Sure, in a good society with a parecon many reasons for crime are gone and criminal acts are likely to be far fewer, but that doesn’t mean there will be none at all. And the idea that policing will be needed but can be done on an entirely voluntary basis makes no more sense than saying flying planes will be needed but can be done entirely on a voluntary basis. It fails to realize that policing, and especially desirable policing, involves special skills and knowledge. It fails to recognize the need for training to avoid the ills of misuse of police prerogatives. And it exaggerates the dangers of specially employed police, forgetting that they have balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and self managed decision making methods, as well as broad social constraints on their roles, just as airplane pilots do, or doctors, etc.
It is not the police, therefore, but the courts and legal advocates and jury part of the judicial equation that I find myself very unsure about.
On the one hand the advocate model makes some sense. We don’t want people having to defend themselves so that those who are good at it have a tremendous advantage over those who are not good at it. We therefore need well trained lawyers and prosecutors available to all disputants. We also want these advocates to try hard, of course. But at the same time the injunction that prosecutors and defense attorneys should each seek to win a favorable verdict regardless of their impression of the true guilt or innocence of the accused and by any means they can muster because that will yield the greatest probability of truthful results strikes me as about as believable, in certain respects, as the injunction that every economic actor should seek selfish private advance because that will yield the most solidaritous outcomes. But as to how to adapt or replace the combination of courts, judges, juries, and aggressive advocacy, other than concerning matters that economic definitions indicate, I have no good ideas.
Will this parpolity work will with parecon, and vice vera?
Milton Friedman, a far right wing University of Chicago based Noble prize winning economist of immense repute, argues that “viewed as a means to the end of political freedom, economic arrangements are important because of their effect on the concentration or dispersion of power.” And this is true enough. And indeed economic institutions are also important for the way they train us either to participate in decisions as equals or to be docile as subordinates and for the way they help us to attain the social skills and habits of involvement and decision making or instead for the ways they diminish those skills and habits.
Friedman went on to add that “the kind of economic organization that provides economic freedom directly, namely, competitive capitalism, also promotes political freedom because it separates economic power from political power and in this way enables the one to offset the other.”
This claim, however, unlike Friedman’s prior more general observation, is one of most absurd utterances in the domain of political or economic thought. In contradiction to Friedman’s view, the truth is that capitalist economics produces gigantic centers of concentrated power in the form of its corporations and their ruling elements. Indeed, it also produces atomized weakened actors in the form of de-centered and disconnected workers and consumers. More, it provides the diverse means to translate corporate economic might into political influence via control over communication, information, and the finances of electioneering as well as via corporate demands made of political figures and backed by the threat of economic extortion. Finally, it even ensures that the atomization and disconnection of workers is further enforced by media manipulation and the alienation of predetermined political outcomes.
The result of all this is that corporate lobbies and elites more generally determine political agendas and ensure that elections choose between agents of elite rule who differ only in how best to maintain elite prerogatives and advantages. Most of the population doesn’t even participate in the charades and among those who do participate most have no option other than repeatedly opting for lesser evils.
Parpolity, in contrast to the attributes of capitalism, requires an economy that doesn’t elevate some actors to positions of power over others but which instead schools the populace in participation, in self management, and in sociality and solidarity to best enjoy the fruits of its political possibilities and options in a parpolity.
Parpolity needs and in turn helps produce citizens who have broadly the same power, the same inclinations to participate, and the same habits of sociality and solidarity--and precisely the same can be said for parecon.
Likewise parpolity needs and helps produce citizens expecting and schooled to positively enhance and benefit from means of managing their own affairs in accord with mutual collective benefit while respecting diverse needs and outcomes, which is true for parecon as well.
Parecon and parpolity are by design welcome partners in social organization. The same underlying logic of seeking to attain equitable outcomes and circumstances in a solidaritous and diverse environment under the self managing auspices of those affected propels and organizes each set of institutions.
If we think of a parpolity or a parecon as a kind of social system that takes in and also sends out actors each day impacting their consciousnesses, habits, degrees of fulfillment, talents, knowledge, skills, and inclinations, we see that each of these parts of life requires and produces what the other part of life provides and needs.
Indeed, via the interface they each offer the other, a parpolity and a parecon easily combine to become a “political economy” without classes and without authoritarianism, delivering solidarity, diversity, equity/justice, and self management.
What about implications for now, from parpolity?
Insofar as a political vision exists, let’s say a refined and elaborated formulation of parpolity, what implications should it have for political and social strategy in the present?
The main implication will have to do with two dimensions of activism--what we demand and how we organize ourselves. As to what we demand, having a political vision will hopefully tell us a variety of things we might make demands about in the present.
That is, we could try to win changes in government and political practices now that reflect and move toward the logic of parpolity. These might include voting reforms such as instant run off procedures, communications reforms such as vast extensions of public media and debate, executive branch reforms having to do with implementation of programs including public oversight, and judicial reforms of a sort that I feel unsure how to even intimate.
When movements fight for changes in the present two very broad criteria ought to inform the choice of aims. First, of course, they should be trying to win improvements in people’s lives. Second, however, they should be trying to win changes that empower people to win still more gains and that educate and inspire people to want to do so.
On both counts, by examining the features of a proposed political vision we ought to be able to discern present day changes that would benefit people, empower people, and inspire people, as well as leading toward the political future we desire.
But the second dimension of implication of a political vision for present practice has to do with movement organization and structure. If we want the politics of the future to have certain features and properties, surely we should try and incorporate those features and properties into our own current operations, as much as we can.
In other words, our movements should in their political structure and practices elevate solidarity, diversity, justice, and self management. The conditions under which we operate today are difficult and unlike those of a future society, of course. But nonetheless the implication of political vision is that we should seek to build movements based on grass roots organization and participation, and even built on nested tiers of councils for decision making, as soon and as much as we are able to.
As a political vision becomes more compelling and shared, the implications for how to adjudicate movement disputes, how to enact shared movement agendas, and how to legislate movement norms and otherwise arrive at movement decisions should become clearer and, over time, more susceptible to incorporation in our efforts.
Let me pose just one possible lesson. Typically, contemporary movements have two forms. They are either single issue and involve a very focused organization fighting for wages or health care or women’s right to choose, and so on. Or they are coalitions composed of many such organizations teaming up about some shared agenda, again usually quite narrowly defined. But our movements are not, most often, very broad and diverse agglomerations of people who mutually respect divergent viewpoints and operate effectively together despite and even in celebration of their differences.
The fragmentation of our movements into single issue efforts and coalitions that bury differences and come and go with events bears only minimal resemblance to a good society or polity. It isn’t that in the future there won’t be people with single primary concerns, or even organizations that are narrowly focused, or coalitions, all coming in and out of fashion. It is that a good society will not be primarily atomized in such fashion. It will instead overwhelmingly be a community of all with all aspects of each respected and incorporated.
If a movement is to be the harbinger and a school for a new society, then it should not be primarily atomized as our movements currently typically are –but it should instead somehow incorporate differences, deal with them as necessary, and in so doing be all the stronger.
Here is one possible approach. Suppose that instead of only creating coalitions organized around a least common denominator list of agreed demands an encompassing movement was also created, a movement of movements, or perhaps we might call it a revolutionary bloc (not coalition). This would be an amalgam of all organizations, projects, movements, and their members, and maybe individual members also, who subscribed to some broad range of priorities and values as well as organizational norms, including and encompassing a wide range of differences.
The bloc would take its leadership regarding aspects of its focus from those most directly dealing in the areas--from the women’s movement about gender issues, from black and Latino movements about race, from the anti war movement about peace issues, from labor and directly economic movements about economic matters, and so on. Instead of the whole being a little part of each component group, the whole would be the total sum of all component groups, contradictions and all (just as a society is). This movement bloc would be a new society in embryo. Its internal organization and operations would presumably reflect our aspirations for the new society we seek.
In any event, some further comments on all these strategic matters will appear in future chapters bearing on political strategy. But for now, the critical claim, still to be fully tested, is that while the problem of envisioning improved political structures is still in process and we can’t know for sure until we are further down that track, it nonetheless seems we can be reasonably confident that participatory economics both produces people and conditions that will contribute to political justice and easily abide its requirements.
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