ParEcon Questions & Answers
Where did parecon come from? What is its history?
Participatory economics, or parecon, came mainly from the cumulative struggles of diverse populations trying to win liberation from capitalism. Parecon owes, in particular, to the anarchist and the libertarian socialist heritage, to the most recent experiences of the New Left of the Sixties, but also to every historical uprising and project aimed at eliminating class rule from the beginning to the present. It has learned from successes and from failures.
I once heard about a strike, billed as the first, by Egyptian peasants against a Pharaoh who moved from requiring six days labor on the pyramid a week, to requiring seven days, and from providing food to providing nothing. I think parecon harks back all the way to that uprising. I think it owes to every essay, speech, and book, and to every activist project and movement that has tried to shed light on the meaning or practice of classlessness.
Parecon meaning classlessness most broadly was born when revolutionaries of various camps began imagining and seeking a classless economy. Kropotkin, Rocker, Bakunin, Pannekoek. That's what parecon is, a classless economy. It is not capitalism but it is also not an economy ruled by roughly a fifth of the population that monopolizes empowering conditions. In parecon a few participants don't dominate the remaining participants.
Parecon itself, the model, came into being more recently, however, with a particular conception of defining institutions, when Robin Hahnel and I thought through our reactions to various schools of anti capitalist activism, and set out our views in a book titled Looking Forward, about sixteen years ago. Since then parecon has been repeatedly refined, partly in its conception, but mostly in how to communicate about it.
Both. Parecon is a thing we uncover in the sense of being the name of an economy that will someday exist, with real workers and consumers, flesh and blood, who produce and consume. In that sense, yes, parecon has properties like a place that we haven't visited. We think about it, guess the properties, and finally uncover them. Parecon in that sense is something out there, not in space but in time.
Parecon, is also, however, the name of a specific economic model, a free creation of the mind, that claims to capture the essence of the real future classless economy that we will enjoy. The model called parecon is in people's heads. The economy called parecon is in the future. The in-the-mind model seeks to describe the in-the-world economy. The economy is what we will enjoy, to be revealed in the future. The model in our heads now may need to adapt and alter as we learn more about the system it seeks to clarify.
I think the model is accurate regarding broad defining features. I think we need the model for the help it can give us in attaining the system. We don't need the model for entertainment. We don't need it to exercise our thinking. The model has a more immediate and practical purpose. It exists to provide hope by making real the demand for a new economy. It exists to provide a goal that can help us embody the seeds of the future in our current efforts. It exists to help us orient our demands and activism toward where we want to end up, rather than only toward oppositional. The model exists to envision an alternative economy and help us attain it. For that, the model needs to capture the skeletal image of the future participatory economy. It needs to reveal the defining byways. It can, however, ignore more detailed tributaries, which will vary from case to case in any event.
The central features of the model called parecon are workers and consumers self managed councils, balanced job complexes, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor, and participatory planning.
I think these institutional features are to the parecon model what private ownership, corporate divisions of labor, remuneration for property, power, and output, and market allocation are to capitalism. You can't have a classless economy without these defining features.
But just as capitalism comes in many shapes, often dramatically different from one instance to the next, and just as this diversity of capitalisms is not due solely to countries having different populations, resources, levels of technology, or differences in other parts of social life, but also owes to countless variations in the implementation of key economic features and in the implementation of endless second, third, and fourth order economic features as well - the same will hold for actual participatory economies.
Thus, different instances of participatory economy will differ in the details of how labor is measured, how jobs are balanced, how councils meet and make decisions, how participatory planning is carried out, and, beyond that, in all manner of less central attributes within and between workplaces and communities.
It is a debilitating mistake to get caught up in seeking an inflexible, unvarying blueprint. Parecon is not inflexible or unvarying. It no more specifies the details of all future parecons than any broad description of capitalism's defining features tell us everything about the U.S., Sweden, Chile, and South Africa. The model shows central defining features, no more, no less.
One of the pivotal aims of defining a post capitalist economy is to establish within it an appropriate approach to decision making. If the economy is going to be classless and fulfill our highest aspirations and those of Kropotkin and Rocker and all the rest, then it has to promote each worker and consumer participating in the decisions that affect their lives.
Most succinctly, if no one is to occupy a more privileged position than others occupy, then each person must have the same broad relation to decision making. There are various ways to achieve that. We could have every person get one vote in every decision, for example. But that's patently absurd. Many decisions have near zero impact on me. Why should I have the exact same say as people directly involved and far more affected? On the other hand, regarding decisions where I am highly involved, I should have more say than people tangentially effected. When I think that simple insight through, guiding by requiring that the same norm apply to everyone, what emerges as a norm is that every actor should have a say in economic decisions in proportion as he or she is affected by them. This formulation provides an ideal we reach for. The norm, I call it self management, is not true or false. It is a value that we like, or not, taking into account its implications.
The next step in my shorthand thinking about this is, if workers and consumers are going to have an influence in outcomes proportionate to how they are affected by them, where are they going to exert this influence?
It may be a lack of imagination, but I find it hard to conceive of any answer other than that workers and consumers will have to do so in gatherings and connections with other workers and consumers, acting sometimes singly and often in groups, using relevant information and means, and having relevant confidence and skills as well.
Sometimes, it seems obvious; we will make decisions as individuals, sometimes in small groups, sometimes in larger ones. We will have more or less say in decisions, either individually or in groups, depending on how much outcomes affect us relative to how much they affect others. This is the logic that leads to the idea of workers and consumers as specific individuals, in little teams, in whole workplaces or neighborhood councils, as well as in nested aggregates of councils, expressing and manifesting their preferences via self managing methods.
That the councils and other levels if participation should be self-managing means that they should utilize means of sharing information, discussing options, and then tallying preferences that give each worker and consumer a say proportionate to the degree they are affected. Full discussions of the meaning of self management would describe different cases, methods, and so on. But the overall idea is simple. Sometimes people determine that democracy is best. Sometimes they determine that different vote tallies may be called for like two-thirds or three quarters. Sometimes they decide consensus is best. Sometimes preferences are expressed by one person, or a few people, or all workers in a plant or consumers in some locale, but it always occurs in context of the whole larger determination of economic inputs and outputs, so that everyone has influence in all outcomes, as appropriate.
The idea of workers and consumers councils, I should add, has a long and elevated history in labor struggle and workplace revolution, and at times also in community organizing, as well. That may be why I can't imagine anything but self managed workers and consumers councils as the main site of decision making. Workers and consumers gravitate to this option themselves, every time they rise in widespread resistance. Parecon's explicit clarification of self management as a decision-making norm is an innovation that has long been implicit in popular inclinations.
We want two things from a remunerative norm. On the one hand, we want it to apportion society's output in an ethically sound way. Everyone should get an amount that reflects appropriate moral preferences rather than violating them. Second, however, the remuneration scheme should give people economically sensible incentives. It needs to propel society's assets being utilized well to meet needs, without waste.
The ethical advisory is why parecon gives you more if you work longer, harder, or at more debilitating conditions and why you don't get more for having more power, or for owning property, or because you happen to be in an industry making something more valuable, or you have highly productive workmates or better tools to work with. That this is the ethical way to proceed can't be proven valid. It is a matter of values. We can say what this approach leads to, and what this approach prevents, which you may ethically like or not. But the liking or not, that's just the way it is.
What this approach leads to is equity. We all earn at the same rate. We all earn with the same prospects. We don't exploit one another. No one earns excessively more because no one can work too much longer or harder than others, and when someone does earn more, for those reasons, everyone agrees it is warranted. Of course, a full discussion addresses finer points, but the values underlying the norm should be pretty clear. Rather than remunerating property, power, or even output, parecon opts to remunerate how hard and how long we work, and the discomfort we endure at work. Parecon claims that this is what we are contributing that deserves to receive payment.
The incentive part of the proviso regarding remuneration is what makes parecon declare that work that gets income must to be socially valuable. If I say pay me for the hours I spent composing music, or digging people's lawns, or playing shortstop for a ball team, I won't be convincing. Such work, at least done by me, is not socially valued because I am unable to do it socially usefully. I just don't have those capacities. If I say, instead, pay me for the hours I spend producing bicycles, or producing medicine, or maybe even writing social commentary, and it is a product that society wants and that I am capable of usefully producing, then I can get paid at the standard rate for my effort, but I can't just stand around and say, hey, I worked, pay me. I have to generate output commensurate to the time I claim to have spent. I don't get paid for the value of the output I generate, but along with my council mates, my work does have to generate valued output if it is to count as being worthy of remunerating.
Without getting too detailed, I think this remunerative norm is necessary for classlessness because it is hard to see generating equity and proper incentives with a different approach. Regarding ethics, duration, intensity, and onerousness of work deserve to be remunerated. Regarding incentives, these are the attributes that incentives can draw forth. And regarding outcomes, to ensure that what is produced makes economic sense, work needs to be socially desired and efficient.
We want classlessness and by definition of what classes are, that means that we can't have our economic institutions giving some producers more power which they use to accumulate excessive wealth, better conditions, and so on.
We know that if we let people own means of production and determine its use they will dominate outcomes and accumulate extreme wealth. Parecon, seeking classlessness, excludes that. That much is straightforward.
But it also turns out that if some people do only rote and tedious, obedient labor, while other people do only work that involves empowering conditions, the former traditional workers, will be dominated by the latter group who I call the coordinator class. The logic of seeking balanced job complexes stems from this observation.
If we reject having some people monopolize empowering conditions and roles, than we require a division of labor that doesn't give only some people empowering and most people disempowering work. That's the advisory underlying the choice to have balanced job complexes which are simply a positive way to avoid a class divided distribution of tasks.
With balanced job complexes, we honor expertise, of course, but each worker does a mix of tasks - not solely rote or solely empowering - so that everyone is comparably and sufficiently prepared by their economic position to participate in self managing councils. We have to have balanced job complexes, in which we all have a mix of tasks of comparable empowerment impact, to avoid a division of labor that separates a coordinator class above from a working class below.
Well it would certainly be an easy approach, yes, but I think a wrong one. Both markets and central planning have intrinsic flaws which would compel workers and consumers to make choices contrary to maintaining self management, solidarity, classlessness, etc. IT is a long story when all evidence is presented, but the logic is simple enough. Central planning by its very definition gives excessive influence to planners and diminished influence to others. Planners turn out to need loyal allies inside plants, so when the dust settles we are back to empowered and disempowered producers - coordinators and workers. Additionally, the former bend decisions to advance their interests, not those of workers. With markets the story is similar, but in some respects even worse. Where centrally planning could arguably arrive at quite accurate valuations, markets cannot, misspecifying prices regarding public and social goods, ecological impact, etc. Markets also enforce that actors behave individualistically, selfishly, in the worst sense. Solidaritous behavior is punished. And markets induce class rule, again. In the rush to capture market share, to compete and avoid being outcompeted, it is necessary to cut costs. This can only be done, after a point, at the expense of workers and consumers. To carry it out well requires a group that is callous to general needs and doesn't suffer the losses penny pinching imposes. This is the coordinator class, hired by firms to ensure surpluses, even against desires for self management.
The above, more fully explored, provides reason to be a market abolitionist, and to join the generalized chorus against central planning, too. But why adopt participatory planning?
Again, the underlying argument is not complex. We want social behavior, not anti social behavior. We want self management which means informed participation with appropriate levels of say. We want all the true social costs and benefits to be accounted in decisions among options. These desires lead toward having those affected by decisions - the workers and consumers in their councils - cooperatively negotiate outcomes. This impetus is pretty much sufficient, I suspect, to narrow our search to participatory planning as outlined in models of parecon, or something very much like it, at any rate. Workers and consumers express preferences. That can't possibly be avoided if we want self management. They have to take into account what others express and modulate accordingly. There is thus a back and forth dynamic to it. Once you have that much in mind, the rest is essentially driven by the constraints of having accurate pricing and appropriate say for actors, I think. That's how Hahnel and I drew out the contours, at any rate, putting in steps and facilitating structures as needed to make the operations viable and effective.
Participatory planning is just the long-term anarchist and decentralized socialist injunction that workers and consumers should decide production and consumption themselves, in accord with their needs and desires, not compelled by those of some narrow elite or ruling class, with parecon's self management norm appended - made real by giving it institutional content.
When first presented, parecon was utterly invisible, as is true with any conceptual model or argument at its outset. A decade and a half later, it is still nearly invisible, on a grand scale, but if we look just at the world of anti capitalists, things are now changing for the better as steadily more people come into contact with parecon and begin to assess it for themselves, most, as far as I can tell, finding it worthy. But why has this process taken so long, and why, even now, is there noticeably little print discussion and debate even as growing numbers of activists at the grass roots are taking parecon seriously?
One possible answer, benign and without broader implications, is just that new ideas and formulations often a lot of time to percolate into view, and even more time to get serious public assessment. I think there is no doubt that this is part of the story. But I also think it isn't the whole of the story.
Why, for example, haven't there been major reviews and review essays about parecon, either highly critical, or gently or aggressively supportive? I think there are two parts to the answer.
The first part is that there is relatively little written, whether as a review or otherwise, about any economic vision, period. It isn't just parecon that goes under-discussed even in alternative media, but also, by and large, other economic vision (and, really, any kind of vision at all). In fact, one could make a case that parecon is getting more ink than other formulations, by a large margin, at this point. So I suspect vision-aversion is a big part of the problem. Make some new claim about how capitalism works, or racism, or whatever, and it will be dissected ad nausea. Make some claim about what should replace capitalism, racism, or whatever, and there will be a crescendo of silence. This is true regardless of what the claims are.
But I think that while non-specific vision aversion explains a long, slow haul for any visionary claims, the second part of the answer in the case of specifically parecon, is that parecon has attributes that work against its being taken seriously by people who run review outlets and other print publications. That is, if parecon becomes widely advocated on the left, there will arise pressure for changes in left institutions in pareconish directions. There is a loose but instructive analogy to the rise of feminism or black power. As those broad perspectives gained strength there arose great pressures to reduce racism and sexism in left movements and projects and to actively propel in their place cultural diversity and feminism. There also arose considerable resistance to these frameworks, not least from people who saw them as threatening their situations. I think the same holds for parecon. Those who own or administer left projects, publications, and movements, either implicitly or explicitly often realize that if pareconish economic views become preponderant, their current agendas for left efforts will be disrupted by a drive toward equity, self management, and particularly balanced job complexes.
There was a time when a periodical that didn't have reviews of parecon, or any kind of visibility for parecon at all, could legitimately claim it was because parecon was a sidebar set of notions, without much support, and because the periodical hadn't, in fact, received any writing about parecon. Their not soliciting writing would hardly evidence active resistance, just a disposition away from vision in any form, or even just honest ignorance of its existence. But nowadays at least a good number of left periodicals have received in some cases many submissions, and have actively rejected them. I think that is very plausibly a different situation than benign neglect.
I agree with you, that whatever the causes may be, the relative absence of people seriously debating parecon's merits in diverse print venues greatly hinders its spread. A potential reader thinks to him or herself should I wade through this book, should I immerse myself in this website, should I work to understand these ideas? Well, perhaps I shouldn't. After all, my favorite journals haven't said anything about it. I will wait and see if parecon gains in credibility before I invest my time in assessing it. Indeed, I think this kind of reader reticence to take parecon seriously, given the absence of serious print debate about it, has operated for over a decade. The rise in the numbers of people relating to parecon despite the absence of print discussion and debate is arguably remarkably quick, rather than slow, seen that way. At any rate, slow or fast, hinders or natural, the attention parecon is getting is now reaching a scale that will propel collective adjudication of the merits of the model, I think - or hope, at any rate.
If it was just for the future, why work on it now? No, I think parecon has tremendous implications right now, today, as well as in coming periods as we get further along in our activism.
For me, indeed, the main point of endlessly advocating the need for vision and arguing the merits of parecon is precisely that I think current practice, if it is to have greater success, depends in considerable part on incorporating vision.
We need vision, economic and otherwise, to overcome cynicism that there is no alternative to oppressive conditions. We need vision, economic and otherwise, to give us insight permitting us to incorporate the seeds of the future in our present organization and activism. And we need vision, economic and otherwise, to orient and inform both our critique of what exists and our demands and practices at changing what exists so that our efforts lead where we want to wind up - rather than taking us in circles, or, worse, toward a new world we didn't anticipate or desire.
Parecon implies in the present that we ought to make demands around income that move us toward equity and demands about power that move us toward self management. It suggests the need to win changes leading toward balanced job complexes. It suggests fighting for adaptations of and restraints on markets leading toward participatory planning. It makes obvious the desirability of establishing workers and consumers councils, and of having our movements internally pareconish regarding their decision making procedures, roles, and modes of remuneration. It suggests restructuring our institutions in accord with our economic aims, as we can within the current limiting context, to learn more about future implementation, and also to inspire and benefit people in the present. And it has much to say not only about what we fight for - demands, campaigns, etc. - but especially how we talk about our efforts. We should be discussing our projects and demands in ways that lead toward ever greater comprehension of and desire for pareconish structures and outcomes.
I am baffled when people say vision has no implications. To me it is like saying to someone looking for their terminal at the airport, hey, where you want to go has no relevance, just tell me how you are feeling about where you are, that is enough to decide your terminal. You see the problem. You can't have good activist strategy, good organizational structure, good policies in the movement, or good policies regarding the broader society, unless you know what you are trying to attain. Without vision, you can make your strategy fit your current means and assets. You can make it oppose what you dislike. But you can't orient it to arrive at a preferred destination. How many times must people suffer the disasters of directionless activism before we elevate having a destination to priority importance?
In the Argentine uprisings people occupied workplaces and neighborhoods setting up what they called assemblies. In the assemblies, they then began to reorient behavior and policy. This has occurred often in history. When Argentines did this, they did not have a clear goal for society or the economy. They were rebelling against horrendous conditions and prospects, but not for a shared alternative. In time, most of the energy dissipated. Only very modest tangible gains persisted. There are many factories still occupied, which is the main lasting achievement, and a very important one, indeed, but the glue of an overall program or goal is currently absent.
I think that there could have been a far greater achievement, perhaps world historic, had there been even just thousands, much less millions of people in those assemblies who shared parecon as a part of their goal for society. In that case, many steps that never occurred, or that occurred half heartedly vaguely, would have been prioritized, such as self consciously altering remuneration norms, understanding the ill effects of markets and working to counter them as well as not being demoralized by their impact, moving toward job balancing, all patiently but very explicitly. Instead of having an endless cacophony of seemingly divergent desires in play, the presence of vision would have yielded at least large-scale coherence, solidarity, and purpose. It isn't that there wouldn't be differences as well; it is that an overarching shared agenda would provide the umbrella for resolving those differences, making the differences productive of useful debate and innovation within a shared project, rather than having the differences generate seemingly fractious divides among people who should have been allied.
It would take more than my knowledge of Argentina, and more time than we have, to list the large and small ways that people would have acted differently, had different motives and displayed confidence, both in workplaces and in communities, had there been an overarching shared vision including a conception of how to build lasting structures. But yes, I do think - and it is at the heart of whether parecon, as well as a political, cultural, and social vision, should be a peripheral matter or a central concern - that the absence of coherent shared aims was a huge obstacle to the incredible upsurge of Argentine activism persisting and solidifying a new world, or at least solidifying lasting movements that would continue to struggle in a growing project.
Again, I hesitate to comment on a situation about which I know very little. But, to not dodge your question, in broad general terms, I think the Bolivarian approach now is very innovative. It seeks to avoid head on conflict and to use the power of the government as well as gigantic oil revenues to create parallel structures to those from the past. It believes that displaying social concern and solidarity, the new ways will replace the old, in time, by simply demonstrating multi-dimensional superiority.
Given Venezuela's unusual history and current situation, this seems like a very good plan. I think what might differ in how it would be carried out if the economic aspect was explicitly pareconist, would be the nature of some of the alternative institutions created, and how they are talked about with an eye to expanding support. There might be greater emphasis on eliminating old corporate divisions of labor, more clarity about new modes of remuneration, and more emphasis, more explicitly formulated, on countering and replacing market exchange. In general, if you look at the Bolivarian policies to date, they are by and large incredibly inspiring and innovative. At the same time, there is a high degree of confusion about where it is all going, and I think the change that would come with a coherent shared vision would be much more clarity about choices and how they are advocated - not just in the government actors, but much more important, in the broad population, which, as a result, would be both more involved in the process and more vigilant against corruption or distortion of it.
Well, lots of shared support is hard to pin down. If we had a few thousand activists who were not just anti capitalist but very self consciously pareconist, say, that would be one thing. If we had tens or hundreds of thousands of pareconist activists, that would be another thing.
In the former case, basically, we would be moving toward the latter case. Partly this would mean that the tone and content of the left would shift from being mostly about what is wrong and how powerful the forces of reaction are, to being about what we want - its viability and worthiness - and how powerful solidarity and organization can be in winning change. This might sound minor, but I think such a shift in tone and content would be a powerful impetus to movement growth and morale. I think a few thousand pareconists would probably mean many experiments in creating community and workplace parecon models to learn from and inspire people they encounter. I think it would likely also mean much more emphasis on organizing grass roots assemblies and councils, more emphasis on redistributive programs being formulated in terms of the goal of remunerating effort and sacrifice, more emphasis on winning changes overcoming corporate divisions of labor and top down decision making - both in our own movements and in society at large, more emphasis on demands bearing on allocation - what is produced, how, etc. including taxes, penalties, and participation in budgeting, all formulated in terms of eventually replacing markets with participatory planning.
Also, I doubt that movements will become actively positive about economic vision, and not other aspects of society. I think movements will, once clearing the hurdle to take a positive stance, also have a positive political perspective about government, a positive cultural perspective about race and religion, a positive kinship perspective about family and socialization, and so on. So I think there would be similar gains in efforts to win changes in these other parts of life, too.
Well there are way too many implications in both directions to do more than skirt the surface here. Most broadly, if we are seeking new relations for race, religion, and culture, kinship, family, and socialization, and for legislation, adjudication, and government, as I certainly think we ought to, a much needed step of doing so is to arrive at convincing and inspiring shared vision for each realm, not just for the economy. Once we attain such vision, it will greatly inform our immediate efforts, orienting us toward demands consistent with moving forward around race, gender, and power, and with consistent ways of organizing and structuring our movements while we do so. Some of what will arise is easy to predict. We will better incorporate feminist and anti racist features in our organizational present. Likewise, once we have goals for how to adjudicate disputes, establish shared norms, and implement collective projects, surely it would follow that we should both demand government innovations moving toward these goals and also as best we can implement those ways of making decisions and acting in our own political organizations in the present.
Parecon points toward various possible values that might transfer well to these other realms from the economy including solidarity, diversity, self management, and probably also variants on equity such as justice. We have to ask of parecon, are its features such that they would be compatible with and even help propel visionary aims regarding family, culture, and polity. Do parecon's economic features help attain desired aims regarding those other realms? Can the requirements of those spheres of life, addressed by new preferred institutions, be met by parecon? And vice versa, can they meet parecon's demands? Actually, all this is the subject matter of a new book I have recently published called Realizing Hope, which addresses participatory economics in the broader social and world setting including exploring some possible aims for that broader setting.
The thing about history is that it isn't even a little like chemistry or physics that we implement in a lab. In real life there are countless possibilities. There are endless circles of variables piled on variables. Even tiny and quite unpredictable shifts and occurrences can magnify into huge implications. So, I have to honestly say, the main answer is: who knows? Shit happens. So do good things. And stuff comes unexpectedly, often.
But, for purposes of your question, let's assume what we don't yet know, but what I claim - that parecon the model is, indeed, a close description of the defining features necessary to have a classless economy. In that case, there are a number of scenarios I can see possibly unfolding.
Perhaps some major advocacy will occur which will greatly accelerate the process of people gaining the requisite interest to judge parecon, and, I hope, arrive at supporting it. Then it will grow in prominence quickly. What might this be? Perhaps some major movement will adopt parecon as an economic aim, propelling it into sight and assessment. Or perhaps some very prominent individuals or periodicals will in one big act together push it into much wider visibility. Or maybe there is some other escalation that might occur.
In the absence of all that, however, I think the path forward is quite likely to extend the path in the past few years. This would mean more advocates taking time to write and to organize around pareconish ideas, as you and a growing number of other people have begun doing. It might mean caucuses or groups beginning to form specifically to advocate and educate about parecon within larger movements or projects. It would hopefully mean grassroots support continuing to grow, which raise growing pressure for public debate. And so on.
One can imagine, as well, the possibility of some kind of participatory economy or participatory society project, domestic or international, to help activists coordinate in such endeavors. These have begun to form, indeed, in a few places, already. One can even imagine pareconish activist groups, movements, or an international, but it still seems a ways off. So I guess the bottom line is that we will see what occurs, or, more accurately, we will try things and will experiences the results.
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