Thinking Forward: Introduction
Conceptualizing Economic Vision
Thinking Forward is a compendium of lectures from a course on Conceptualizing Economic Vision given on the Left On Line telecommunications system. The procedures for the course are typical for online courses. Each week there is new lecture. During the week, students react and pose questions. Faculty responds, as do other students. Debate proceeds and there is another lecture at weeks end. This volume, then, is one among many that we hope will emerge from the Ideas on Line University.
Outline & Purpose
The online course has ten lectures, in turn used as the basis for this online book.
The course lectures are:
Elements and Values: What is an economy; what aims might we
have for an economy?
Visionary Options: Market, centrally planned, social democratic,
and green decentralist options.
Values: General aims for workplaces and work.
Values: General aims for consumption.
Values: General aims for allocation.
Councils and Job Complexes: Workplace decision making, job roles,
and Consumption Arrangements: Remuneration and consumption decision
Institutions: Criteria of decision making, motivations, information,
and choice, & allocation institutions and roles.
Economic Vision: Judging economies against our values and fitting
an economy in society.
- Reactions to ParEcon: What have critics said about Parecon, and what responses have the authors offered?
The lectures have three primary ends:
First, one aim of the course is to understand the visionary economic model called Participatory Economics that my frequent co-author Robin Hahnel and I have presented in other volumes (Looking Forward, South End Press, 1991, and The Political Economy of Participatory Economics, Princeton Univ. Press, 1991), as well as the other contending visions called market socialism, and centrally planned socialism.
Second, the course also teaches how to judge these systems and to adapt them or conceive entirely different economic models.
Finally, most ambitiously, I hope many of the how-to think about social vision lessons of the course apply to other domains, for example conceptualizing gender, political, or cultural aims for modern societies.
For some people the question why vision? may appear silly. It is like taking a trip, they might reason. We need vision to know where we are going. How else can we organize our journey so it points in the right direction and so nothing about it diverts us from our destination? Vision tells us where we want to arrive and reveals how our present locale falls short of our desires. Vision raises hope and desire. It motivates and secures our efforts against temporary setbacks.
These are reasonable reactions, yet others have serious doubts about pursuing vision. You cant know the future sufficiently to formulate vision sensibly, they argue. To act as if you can is deceitful, they warn. And anyhow, even if you could pose a sensible vision, it would be authoritarian to do so, they conclude. The future must come from everyones involvement and for a few people to pose a vision crowds out that involvement. If you start thinking about vision, rather than collectively creating it, a few people will impose a future of their private design rather than hosts of people collectively creating the future.
The points are well taken, yet this defender of pursuing vision is not convinced. Can a critic of trying to develop economic or other social visions really contest that to move forward wisely, we must know something about what we want to wind up? How do we even formulate our present choices without knowing our future aims? Surely social change strategies cant only respond to what is, but must also aim for what we want. History shows that well motivated movements against contemporary ills often failed even after defeating opponents because in victory they established new structures little better than the old onesin part, no doubt, for want of having anything better clearly in mind. And can anyone really contest that to have compelling aims can help sustain struggle?
The critic, undaunted, replies that these are powerful arguments for vision, yes, but that they do not tell us how much and how detailed a vision we need, only that something is needed. And then, coming at it from the opposite direction, the critic of pursuing vision asks: Can anyone who advocates developing vision deny that history and society are horribly complex, so that the future is largely beyond our predictive abilities? Can any visionary contest that to make believe one can predict future arrangements and structures in detail is outrageous hubris? And can any advocate of developing a compelling vision deny that this can lead to an egotistical attachment to one conception, removing experiment, participation, and learning, and cramming history into an inflexible mapping that may have little or nothing to do with real human potentials? Surely this too has happened in history.
Yes, of course, responds the reasonable advocate of conceptualizing vision, these correctives of the anti-visionary are very important, but they dont tell us that we ought to have no vision, they merely limit how much we ought to try to conceive and warn us about how we ought to use any vision we propose.
Well, this debate could rage much longer, but we must make a choice. So what do we take from the contending viewpoints for our book, Conceptualizing Economic Vision? In light of the good points raised on both sides, how do we approach the question of vision generally and of economic vision specifically? How much do we want? What attitude do we need to take toward what we adopt?
We seek a picture of a desired future rich and detailed enough to provide hope and direction but to also respect careful analysis based on real knowledge. We understand our efforts to be cumulative, adaptable, and always the basis for more clarification, refinement, and improvement as we learn more through practice. We are not creating blueprints to confine ourselves, but outlines that anyone can utilize, adapt, refine, and replace as we proceed.
More, we see that widespread participation in designing a better future requires that people become adept at thinking about institutions, structures, social roles, and how these relate to desirable values. Therefore to have a blueprint which guides and constrains a movement and which is determined by a few and overseen by them is certainly authoritarian. But to openly propose a vision, and to try to disseminate the skills and knowledge needed for effectively conceptualizing and adapting vision is the opposite. It respects that people need and will use vision both for direction and for sustenance, but simultaneously enlists and assists people in joining a collective, flexible, continually improving, visionary project of their own making.
The most effective opponents of too much vision might still say, simply, that what we need is to reduce hierarchy and injustice to an absolute minimum. As we band into social movements to reduce hierarchy and injustice, we will learn more about how to accomplish the end as much as possible. To try to postulate anything more in the way of future vision now will narrow our view on the one hand, and likely be ill-conceived due to the complexity of the issues involved, on the other.
Our reply, finally, is that the critic of certain ills that derive from pursuing vision too vigorously or too inflexibly cannot have it both ways. If the world is so complex, and the possibility for error in choosing paths through it is so great, which is all too true, then as with any other human endeavor, some care and thought is in order. And if there is no public effort at creating vision, if public tools and methods are not evolved, then a relatively few folks with great intellectual confidence will take these tasks upon themselves privately. Such folks will be, by their training and their position in society, those who are conceptually well equipped to come up with ideas about new institutions and especially to voice them convincingly, but who are also socially horribly equipped for doing this humanely, due to their elitist, academic biases. In other words, by arguing against the need to publicly address issues of vision in sufficient detail, the critics of vision ironically foster exactly the ends they wish to avoid: vision created by a self-defined elite, imposed on the many who are excluded from conceptualizing vision, and reflecting a narrow set of elite interests due to the authors places in society.
To us, the real solution to the conundrumthat people seeking a better society need vision but that having vision can also do us harmis not to reject vision in public while it is developed privately, but to debate visionary aims and goals publicly, and, more, to disseminate and clarify the methods by which vision is developed and refined so that all people who wish to do so may partake of the project, confidently bringing to bear their own insights, interests, and experiences.
As to whether this approach can avoid the hubris of proposing too much, or the elitism of trying to limit those who participate in conceiving vision, or the sectarianism of trying to constrain future thought to narrow channels, the reader and history will have to judge. But my unabashed aims in Conceptualizing Economic Vision are to develop clarity about values, methods of analysis, and to elaborate concepts suited to describing and evaluating the defining institutions of a desirable economy. And to me this includes conceiving how production could be organized, the character of consumption, and what means of allocation would be employed, all sufficiently for assessment and refinement by others, and for adaptation and use as a guide in developing programs for change. Anything less is candy for the mind, but has very limited bearing on attaining a better world.
To begin to accomplish these ends as a preliminary step we have to know:
1. What is an economyso we know what we have to describe in order to have described an economic vision
2. What aims do we want an economy (i.e. our economic vision) to accomplishso we know what qualities we have to build into the economy we favor.
But before getting to these introductory issues, which are the main focus of our first lecture, there is one further matter to discuss.
Reading Conceptualizing Economic Vision Productively
In these lectures I try to be conversational and clear, but not simplistic. We start from scratch, assuming no prior knowledge of economics or social change struggle. This is not a textbook in the traditional sense, nor a history book, nor a survey of a field, nor a comprehensive carefully honed rendition of my own views on economic vision. It is, instead, very nearly an exact transcription of the lectures from an online course whose content was very much determined by its participants. It seeks to teach, to provoke, to elicit, not to create or to present.
As a means to this priority aim, each lecture only takes us part way to where I want readers to be by the time of the next lecture. That is, in each lecture I ask a number of questions. Settling on answers before turning to the next lecture where my answers appear, and even writing them out if you have the time (as online students do in message posts that I and others react to), will greatly increase the value of reading this book. Yes, of course you can just read Conceptualizing Economic Vision without trying to answer the questions yourself.. But experience with this course in the Left on Line University suggests that trying to puzzle out the many issues raised before reading my take on them will be far more instructive, particularly regarding the how to conceptualize vision part of what this book is about, rather than just the here are some visionary ideas and views part.