by Michael Albert
“Most everybody I see knows the truth but they just don’t know that they know it.”
— Woody Guthrie
The British Victorian liberal thinker John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) tells us that we…
are not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels which form the existing type of social life are the most desirable lot of human beings.
The American social critic Noam Chomsky says he …
would like to believe that people have an instinct for freedom, that they really want to control their own affairs. They don’t want to be pushed around, ordered, oppressed, etc., and they want a chance to do things that make sense like constructive work in a way that they control, or maybe control together with others.
If “trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading” are not the “most desirable lot” for humanity, what is? If humanity should not aspire to create an elite minority joyfully dancing atop a suffocating mountainous majority, what should we aspire to? If the instinct to not be “pushed around, ordered, oppressed” and to do “constructive work in a way that [we] control” deserves exploring, where should we begin?
The United States has about 3 percent of the world’s population yet does nearly half the world’s consuming. Within the US, about 2 percent of the population own 60 percent of the wealth. Other developed nations are similarly unequal. Less developed countries suffer broadly the same internal distribution, though there the richest are less wealthy and the poorest are more destitute.
Indignity, disempowerment, and hunger accompany capitalism worldwide. No one sensibly denies this, yet even among those who despise capitalism, most fear that suffering would increase without it. While some certainly find capitalism odious, few celebrate an alternative and those who do generally favor “market socialism,” “centrally planned socialism,” or “green bioregionalism.” In contrast, this book rejects capitalism but also the typically favored alternatives. The English humanist William Morris (1834-1896) …
[sought] 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.
But how can we undertake economics to usher in Morris’s “common- wealth”? How do we reward and ennoble work? How do we enrich consumption and make it more equitable? How do we make allocation just and efficient? Can we enjoy efficiency, justice, democracy, and integrity simultaneously?
Part I of this book discusses economic values and institutions. Part II describes participatory economics [parecon] and argues its benefits. Part III explores daily life implications of a participatory economy. Part IV rebuts plausible worries. First, we briefly address how economic vision relates to anti-corporate globalization and other economic aims garnering support around the world.
Parecon and Globalization
Anti-corporate globalization activists favor sympathetic and mutually beneficial global ties to advance equity, solidarity, diversity, and self-management. Globalize equity not poverty. Globalize solidarity not greed. Globalize diversity not conformity. Globalize democracy not subordination. Globalize sustainability not rapaciousness. Two questions arise.
- Why do these aspirations cause anti-corporate globalization activists to be critical of corporate globalization?
- What new institutions do anti-corporate globalization activists propose to do a better job than those that now exist?
Rejecting Capitalist Globalization
Current international market trading overwhelmingly benefits those who enter exchanges already possessing the most assets. When trade occurs between a US multinational and a local entity in Mexico, Nigeria, or Thailand, the trade doesn’t provide greater benefit to the weaker party that has fewer assets, nor are the benefits divided equally. Rather, benefits go disproportionately to the stronger traders who thereby increase their relative dominance.
Opportunist rhetoric aside, capitalist globalization’s flow of resources, assets, outputs, cash, capital, and harmful by-products primarily further empowers the already powerful and further enriches the already rich at the expense of the weak and poor. The result is that at the turn of the twenty-first century of the 100 largest economies in the world, almost exactly half are not countries but are private, profit-seeking corporations.
Similarly, market competition for resources, revenues, and audience is nearly always a zero-sum game. Each actor advances at the expense of others so that capitalist globalization promotes a self-interested “me-first” logic that generates hostility and destroys solidarity between actors. This dynamic occurs from individuals through industries and states. Collectively beneficial public and social goods like parks, health-care, education, and social infra-structure are downplayed while individually enjoyed private goods are prioritized. Businesses and nations augment their own profits and simultaneously impose harsh losses on weak constituencies. Humanity’s well-being doesn’t guide the process but is instead sacrificed on behalf of private profit. Against capitalist globalization solidarity fights a rearguard battle even to exist, much less to predominate.
Moreover, cultural communities’ values disperse only as widely as their megaphones permit, and worse, are frequently drowned out by communities with larger megaphones impinging on them. Thus capitalist globalization swamps quality with quantity. It creates cultural homogenization not cultural diversity. Not only do McDonald’s and Starbucks proliferate, so do Hollywood images and Madison Avenue styles. The indigenous and non-commercial suffer. Diversity declines.
At the same time, only political and corporate elites inhabit the decision making halls of the capitalist globalizers. The idea that the broad public of working people, consumers, farmers, the poor, and the disenfranchised should have proportionate say is considered ludicrous. Capitalist globalization’s agenda is precisely to reduce the influence of whole populations to the advantage of Western corporate and political rule. Capitalist globalization imposes hierarchy not only in economies, but also in politics where it fosters authoritarian state structures. It steadily reduces the number of people who have any say over their own communities, much less over nations, or the planet. And as the financiers in corporate headquarters extend their shareholders’ powers, the earth beneath our feet is dug, drowned, and paved with no attention to species, ecology, or humanity. Profit and power drive all calculations.
In sum, capitalist globalization produces poverty, ill health, shortened life spans, reduced quality of life, and ecological collapse. Anti-globalization activists, who might more usefully be called internationalist activists, oppose capitalist globalization precisely because it so aggressively violates the equity, diversity, solidarity, self-management, and ecological balance essential to a better world.
Supporting Global Justice
But rejecting capitalist globalization is not sufficient. What specific global exchange norms and institutions would do better than what we endure? Do anti-globalization activists propose any alternatives to replace the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO)?
The International Monetary Fund and World Bank were established after World War II. The IMF was intended to combat financial disruptions adversely affecting people around the world. It employed negotiation and pressure to stabilize currencies and help countries avoid economy-disrupting financial machinations. The World Bank, on the other hand, was created to facilitate long-term investment in underdeveloped countries as a means of expanding and strengthening their economies. It was to lend major investment money at low interest rates to offset the lack of local capacity. Within then existing market relations, these limited goals were positive. In time, however, and most dramatically in the 1980s, these institutions changed. Instead of working to facilitate stable exchange rates and to help countries protect themselves against financial fluctuations, the IMF’s priority became bashing down all obstacles to capital flow and unfettered profit-seeking—virtually the opposite of its mandate. And in parallel, instead of facilitating investment on behalf of local poor economies, the World Bank became a tool of the IMF, providing loans to reward countries that offered open corporate access while withholding loans to punish those that did not, and financing projects not with an eye to enlarging benefits for the recipient country but to seeking profits for major multinationals.
The World Trade Organization that was first conceived in the early postwar period came into being only decades later, in the mid-1990s. Its agenda became to regulate all trade on behalf of the rich and powerful. IMF and World Bank policies were already imposing on Third World countries low wages and high pollution by coercing their weak or bought-off governments. The new insight was why shouldn’t we weaken governments and agencies that might defend workers, consumers, or the environment, not only in the Third World, but everywhere? Why not remove all efforts to limit trade due to its adverse labor, ecological, social, cultural, or development implications, leaving as the only legal criterion for regulation whether short-term profits can be made? If national or local laws impede trade—say an environmental, health, or labor law—why not have a WTO that can render predictably pro-corporate verdicts to trump governments and populations on behalf of corporate profits?
The full story about these three centrally important global institutions is longer than indicated above, of course, but even with only the brief overview, it is easy to propose improvements.
First, why not replace the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO, with an International Asset Agency, a Global Investment Assistance Agency, and a World Trade Agency? These three new institutions would work to attain equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management, and ecological balance in international financial, trade, and cultural exchange. They would seek to direct the benefits of trade and investment disproportionately to weaker and poorer parties, not to richer and more powerful ones. They would prioritize national aims, cultural identity, and equitable development above commercialism. They would protect domestic laws, rules, and regulations designed to promote worker, consumer, environmental, health, safety, human rights, animal protection, or other non-profit centered interests by rewarding those who attain such aims most successfully. They would advance democracy by enlarging the choices available to democratically controlled governments and subordinating the desires of multinationals and large economies to the survival, growth, and diversification of smaller units.
Similarly these new institutions would not promote global trade at the expense of local economic development nor would they force Third World countries to open their markets to rich multinationals and to abandon efforts to protect infant domestic industries. Instead of downgrading international health, environmental, and other standards through a process called “downward harmonization,” they would work to upgrade standards via “upward equalization.” The new institutions would not limit government ability to use purchasing dollars for human rights, environmental, worker rights, and other non-commercial purposes, but would advise and facilitate doing just that. They would advocate countries treating products differently if they were made with brutalized child labor, with workers exposed to toxins, or with no regard for species protection.
Instead of bankers and bureaucrats carrying out the policies of presidents to affect the lives of the very many without even a pretense at participation by those impacted on, the new institutions would be transparent, participatory, and bottom-up, with local, popular, democratic accountability. They would promote and organize international cooperation to restrain out-of-control global corporations, capital, and markets by regulating them so that people in local communities could control their own lives. They would promote trade that reduces financial volatility, enlarges democracy at every level from the local to the global, enriches human rights for all people, fosters environmental sustainability worldwide, and facilitates economic advancement of the most oppressed and exploited groups.
The new institutions would encourage the major industrial countries to coordinate their economic policies, currency exchange rates, and short-term capital flows in the public interest and not for private profit. They would establish standards to regulate financial institutions, directing the shift of financial resources from speculative profit-seeking to productive, sustainable development. They would establish taxes on currency transactions to reduce destabilizing short-term cross-border financial flows and to provide funds for investment in long-term environmentally and socially sustainable development in poor communities and countries. They would create public international investment funds to meet human and environmental needs and to ensure adequate global demand by channeling funds into sustainable long-term investment.
The new institutions would also work to get wealthy countries to write off the debts of impoverished countries and create a permanent insolvency mechanism for adjusting the debts of highly indebted nations. They would use regulatory institutions to help establish public control over global corporations and to curtail corporate evasion of local, state, and national law.
In addition, beyond getting rid of the IMF, World Bank, and WTO and replacing them with the dramatically new and different structures, anti-corporate globalization activists also advocate a recognition that international relations should not derive from centralized but rather from bottom-up institutions. New institutions should gain their credibility and power from an array of arrangements and ties enacted at the level of citizens, neighborhoods, states, nations, and groups of nations on which they rest. And these more grassroots structures and bodies of debate and agenda-setting should also be transparent, participatory, and guided by a mandate that prioritizes equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management, and ecological sustainability and balance.
The overall idea is simple. The problem isn’t international relations per se. Anti-capitalist globalization activists are unrepentantly internationalist. The problem is that capitalist globalization seeks to alter international exchange to further benefit the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and weak. In contrast, internationalists want to alter international exchange to weaken the rich and powerful and empower the poor and weak. Internationally we want global justice and not capitalist globalization. But what do we want inside our own countries? This is where the link between the profoundly important anti-capitalist globalization movements and the rest of this book derives.
Anti-Capitalist Globalization And Economic Vision
Even if internationalist activists seek alternative global economic institutions as above, a vision problem persists. International structures certainly impose severe constraints on domestic choices. At the same time, however, global relations are propelled by pressures from domestic economies and institutions. The IMF, World Bank, and WTO impose on countries’ markets and corporate divisions of labor. But likewise domestic markets and corporations around the world propel capitalist globalization.
When activists offer a vision for a people-serving and democracy-enhancing internationalism we urge constructing a very good International Asset Agency, Global Investment Assistance Agency, and Global Trade Agency on top of the very bad domestic economies we currently endure. Suppose we win the sought gains. Persisting corporations and multinationals in each country would not positively augment and enforce the new international structures, but would instead continually emanate pressures to return global relations to more rapacious ways. At an intuitive level people actually understand this. When average folks ask anti-globalization activists “What do you want?”, they aren’t only asking us what we seek internationally. They also wonder what we seek domestically. What do we want inside countries that would augment the international gains we seek and make fighting for them more than useless posturing?
If we have capitalism, many people rightly reason, there will inevitably be tremendous pressures toward capitalist globalization and against anti-capitalist internationalism. IAA, GIAA, GTA, and more local alliances and structures sound positive, but even if immense exertions put them in place, won’t domestic economies around the world undo the gains? The question is warranted.
Capitalist globalization is markets, corporations, and class structure writ large. To replace capitalist globalization and not just temporarily mitigate its effects or stall its enlargement, don’t we have to move toward replacing capitalism as well? If efforts to improve global relations through creating the new international regulatory institutions we propose are an end in themselves, won’t they be rolled back? To persist, don’t they have to be part of a larger project to transform underlying capitalist structures? If we have no vision for that larger project, if we offer no alternative to markets and corporations, won’t our gains be temporary?
So, many people deduce, why should we apply our energies and time to the struggles that you propose when we believe that even if we successfully won all the gains you seek, in time those gains would be wiped out by resurgent capitalist dynamics? You keep telling us how powerful and encompassing capitalism is. We believe you. If the efforts you propose don’t lead to entirely new economies, they will eventually be rolled back to all the same old rot. It isn’t worth my time to seek gains that will be undone.
This assessment is fueled by the reactionary belief that “there is no alternative.” To combat this belief anti-globalization activists must not only offer an alternative regarding global economics, but also an alternative regarding domestic economies. People need to feel that the application of their energies to opposing corporate globalization won’t have only a quickly undone short-term impact, but will win permanent gains. So what should replace capitalism?
Summarizing Participatory Economics
Capitalism revolves around private ownership of the means of production, market allocation, and corporate divisions of labor. It remunerates property, power, and, to a limited extent, contribution to output, resulting in huge differences in wealth and income. Class divisions arise from differences in property ownership and differential access to empowered versus subservient work. Class divisions induce huge differences in decision-making influence and quality of life. Buyers and sellers fleece one another and the public suffers anti-social investment, toxic individualism, and ecological decay.
To transcend capitalism, parecon-oriented anti-globalization activists would offer an institutional vision derived from the same values we listed earlier for shaping alternative global aims: equity, solidarity, diversity, self-management, and ecological balance.
Such activists would urge that each workplace be owned in equal part by all citizens so that ownership conveys no special rights or income advantages. Bill Gates wouldn’t own a massive proportion of the means by which software is produced. We all would own it equally, so that ownership would have no bearing on the distribution of income, wealth, or power. In this way the ills of garnering wealth through profits would disappear.
Next, argues the internationalist advocate, workers and consumers would develop and express their desires via democratic councils with the norm for decisions being that methods of dispersing information and for arriving at and tallying preferences into decisions should convey to each party involved, to the extent possible, influence over decisions in proportion to the degree he or she will be affected by them. Councils would be the vehicle of decision-making power and would exist at many levels, including smaller work groups, teams, and individuals, and broader workplaces and whole industries, as well as individual consumers, neighborhoods, counties, and larger. Votes could be majority rule, three-quarters, two-thirds, consensus, etc. and would be taken at different levels and with fewer or more participants and voting rules depending on the particular implications of the decisions in question. Sometimes a team or individual would make a decision. Sometimes a whole workplace, an industry, a neighborhood, or a county would decide. Different decisions would employ different voting and tallying methods. There would be no a priori correct, detailed option, but there would be a right norm to implement: decision-making input in proportion as one is affected by decisions.
Next comes the organization of work. Who does what tasks in what combinations?
Each actor does a job, and each job of course includes a variety of tasks. In rejecting current corporate divisions of labor, we decide to balance for their empowerment and quality of life implications the tasks each actor does. Every person participating in creating new products is a worker, and each worker has a balanced job complex, meaning the combination of tasks and responsibilities each worker has would accord them the same empowerment and quality of life benefits as the combination every other worker has. Unlike the current system, we would not have a division between those who overwhelmingly monopolize empowering, fulfilling, and engaging tasks and those who are overwhelmingly saddled with rote, obedient, and dangerous tasks. For reasons of equity and especially to create the conditions of democratic participation and self-management, balanced job complexes would ensure that when we each participate in our workplace and industry decision-making, we have been comparably prepared by our work with confidence, skills, and knowledge to do so. The contrary situation now is that some people have great confidence, decision-making skills, and relevant knowledge obtained through their daily work, while other people are only tired, deskilled, and lacking relevant knowledge as a result of theirs. Balanced job complexes do away with this division. They complete the task of removing class divisions that is begun by eliminating private ownership of capital. They eliminate, that is, not only the role of capitalist with its disproportionate power and wealth, but also the role of decision monopolizing producer who is accorded status over and above all others. Balanced job complexes retain needed conceptual and coordinative tasks and expertise, but apportion these to produce true democracy and classlessness.
But what about remuneration? We work. This of course entitles us to a share of the product of work. But how much?
The pareconist internationalist says that we ought to receive for our labors remuneration in tune with how hard we have worked, how long we have worked, and how great a sacrifice we have made in our work. We shouldn’t get more because we use more productive tools, have more skills, or have greater inborn talent, much less should we get more because we have more power or own more property. We should get more only by virtue of how much effort we have expended or how much sacrifice we have endured in our useful work. This is morally appropriate, and it also provides proper incentives by rewarding only what we can affect and not what is beyond our control.
With balanced job complexes, if Emma and Edward each work for eight hours at the same pace, they will receive the same income. This is so no matter what their particular job may be, no matter what workplaces they are in and how different their mix of tasks is, and no matter how talented they are, because if they work at a balanced job complex their total workload will be similar in its quality of life implications and empowerment effects. The only difference to reward people doing balanced jobs for will be length and intensity of work done. If these too are equal, the share of output earned will be equal. If length of time working or intensity of work differ somewhat, so will the share of output one earns.
And who makes decisions about the definition of job complexes and who evaluates the rates and intensities of people’s work? Workers do, of course, in their councils, using information culled by methods consistent with the philosophy of balanced job complexes and just remuneration, and in a context appropriately influenced by the wills and desires of consumers.
There is one very large step left to the pareconist internationalist proposal for an alternative to capitalism. How are the actions of workers and consumers connected? How do we get the total produced by workplaces to match the total consumed collectively by neighborhoods and other groups as well as privately by individuals? For that matter, what determines the relative valuation of different products and choices? How do we decide how many workers will be in which industry producing how much? What influences whether some product should be made or not? What guides investments in new technologies in turn influencing what projects should be undertaken and which others delayed or rejected? These questions and others too numerous to mention in this introduction (but dealt with later in this book) are all matters of allocation.
Existing options for allocation are central planning as used in the old Soviet Union and competitive markets as used in all capitalist economies. In central planning a bureaucracy culls information, formulates instructions, sends these instructions to workers and consumers, gets feedback, refines the instructions a bit, sends them again, and receives back obedience. In a market each actor competitively buys and sells products, resources, and the ability to perform labor at prices determined by competitive bidding. Each actor seeks to gain more than those they exchange with.
The problem with each of these modes of connecting actors is that they impose on the economy pressures that subvert solidarity, equity, diversity, and self-management.
For example, even without capital ownership, markets favor private over public benefits and channel personalities in anti-social directions that diminish and even destroy solidarity. They reward output and power, not effort and sacrifice. They produce a disempowered class saddled with rote, obedient labor and an empowered class that accrues most income and determines economic outcomes. They force decision-makers to competitively ignore the wider ecological implications of their choices. Central planning, in contrast, denies self-management and produces the same class division and hierarchy as markets but instead built around the distinction between planners and those who implement their plans, extending from that foundation outward to incorporate empowered and disempowered workers more generally.
In short, both these allocation systems subvert instead of propel the values we hold dear. So what is our alternative to markets and central planning?
Suppose in place of top-down central planning and competitive market exchange, we opt for cooperative, informed decision-making via structures that ensure actors a say in decisions in proportion as outcomes affect them and that provide access to accurate valuations as well as appropriate training and confidence to develop and communicate preferences—that is, we opt for allocation that fosters council-centered participatory self-management, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, balanced job complexes, proper valuations of collective and ecological impacts, and classlessness.
To these ends, therefore, we advocate participatory planning—a system in which worker and consumer councils propose their work activities and consumer preferences in light of true valuations of the full social benefits and costs of their choices.
The system utilizes cooperative communication of mutually informed preferences via a variety of simple communicative and organizing principles and means including, as we will see in coming chapters, indicative prices, facilitation boards, and rounds of accommodation to new information—all permitting actors to express their desires and to mediate and refine them in light of feedback to arrive at choices consistent with their values.
The internationalist pareconist is in a position to answer “What do you want?” succinctly and compellingly, in an appetite-whetting presentation as above, or, of course, in more detail, explaining the logic of the claims, enriching the picture of daily life relations, and rebutting possible concerns—as in the rest of this book.
The summary is that workplace and consumer councils, diverse decision-making procedures that implement proportionate say for those affected, balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and participatory planning, together constitute core institutional scaffolding of a comprehensive alternative to capitalism and also to centrally planned or market socialism.
The ultimate answer to the claim that “there is no alternative” is to enact an alternative. In the short term, however, the answer is to offer a coherent, consistent, viable, economic vision able to generate hope, provide inspiration, reveal what is possible and valuable, and orient and democratize our strategies so that they might take us where we desire to go rather than running in circles or even heading toward something worse than that which we now endure. But are parecon’s visionary aims rooted in practice undertaken around the world, or only mental constructs?
Parecon and Visionary Practice
In today’s world large movements espousing similar aspirations struggle worldwide to better the lives of disenfranchised and abused populations around the globe. Some undertakings pressure elites to beneficially alter existing institutions. Other efforts seek to create new institutions to “live the future in the present.” Some efforts are small and local. Some encompass whole geographic regions. If we look at a selection of visionary practices, we can see many features which have led to the reasoning presented in this book. Parecon doesn’t float in space, that is, but arises from the aspirations and the insights of a huge range of activist efforts. Here are a few examples.
Historically almost every instance of working people and consumers even briefly attaining great control over their own conditions has incorporated both in locales and in workplaces institutions of direct organization and democracy. These have been called councils or assemblies, and given other names as well. Their common feature, however, has been providing a direct vehicle for people to develop, refine, express and implement personal and collective agendas. Both the successes of such endeavors, and also the undeniable fact that they have been repeatedly destroyed by counter forces, fuel and inform our advocacy of workplace and consumer councils in parecon and our efforts to conceive a context in which such councils can thrive rather than be thrashed.
Throughout the history of struggle against injustice there has also been great attention to matters of equity and specifically to the idea that people ought to enjoy life possibilities in a fair and appropriate manner. We should be able to earn a bit more or less by our choices, of course, but not for unworthy reasons. In times of upsurge and self-determination such as in Spain during the Spanish Anarchist struggles there, or earlier in the Paris Commune, and at many other moments as well from major national strikes in the West to movements for freedom in the East and South, seekers of economic justice have realized that there is something horribly wrong with remunerating those who enjoy more fulfilling work and who have more say in social life more than those who do more rote and damaging work and have less say in social life. Parecon’s priority to remunerate only effort and sacrifice arises from these aspirations and also gives them more precise substance than they have previously enjoyed.
But what about instances from the present? Is parecon connected to current exploratory and innovative economic efforts?
Consider collective workplace experiments around the world, including co-ops, worker-owned plants, and collective workplaces. Workers gain control over their factories, perhaps buying them rather than having capitalists close them down entirely, or perhaps originating new enterprises of their own from scratch. The newly in-charge workers attempt to incorporate democracy. They try to redefine the division of labor. They seek narrower income differentials. But the market environment in which they operate makes all this horribly difficult. By their experiences of such difficulties, workers’ and consumers’ efforts at creating worker-controlled enterprises and consumer co-ops provide extensive experience relevant to the definition of parecon. Not only co-op successes, but also their difficulties—such as tendencies for old-style job definitions to reimpose widening income differentials and tendencies for market imposed behaviors to subvert cooperative aims and values—teach important lessons. Indeed, in my own experience, the effort to create the radical publishing house South End Press and to incorporate equity and self-management in its logic and practice powerfully informed many of the insights that together define participatory economics, particularly the idea and practice of balanced job complexes. Likewise, a number of on-going current experiments in implementing parecon structures continue to inform the vision and its various features.
On a grander scale, consider the movement for what is called “solidarity economics” that has advocates in many parts of South America (and particularly Brazil), Europe, and elsewhere. Its defining idea is that economic relations should foster solidarity among participants rather than causing participants to operate against one another’s interests. Not only should economic life not divide and oppose people, it should not even be neutral on this score but should generate mutuality and empathy. Advocates of solidarity economics thus pursue ideas of local worker’s control and of allocative exchange with this norm in mind. Parecon takes their insight that institutions should propel values we hold dear and extends it in additional directions. We want a solidarity economy in the same sense as its advocates do. But we also want a diversity economy, an equity economy, and a self-managing economy. Indeed we want one economy that fulfills all these aspirations simultaneously. Parecon thus arises from, respects, and seeks to provide additional dimensions to solidarity economics.
Or consider the efforts, some years back, in Australia of labor unions to influence not only the conditions and wages of their members’ work lives, but also what people produced. They developed the idea of “Green Bans” which were instances where workers in building trades would ban certain proposed projects on the grounds they were socially or environmentally unworthy. Sometimes they would not only ban the proposed endeavors that capitalists sought to undertake, but would also undertake alternative projects of their own design intended to treat environment and people appropriately. This experience of course foreshadows and informs both parecon’s norms for deciding work and its apportionment of power to affected constituencies. Parecon extends the logic of Australia’s Green Bans into a full economic vision for all facets of economic life.
Or consider the efforts in Porto Alegre and other Brazilian cities and in Kerala and other regions of India to incorporate elements of participatory democracy into budget decisions for cities and regions. Indeed, in Brazil this project is named participative budgeting and the idea is to establish means of local direct organization via which citizens can affect decisions about collective investments regarding government services such as parks, education, public transport, and health care. Parecon’s participatory planning has the same aspirations and impetus, but writ larger, encompassing not only public goods but all goods, and facilitating not only proportionate participation by consumers, but also by workers.
Indeed, for all the examples noted above and many more as well, advocates of participatory economics could be expected, once organized in sufficiently large movements, to pursue similar struggles—the only difference being the way pareconists would explain their actions as being part of a process leading to a whole new economy they would advocate, and perhaps how they would try to create new infrastructure and consciousness by not only fostering the immediate aims, but by also empowering participants to win still more gains in a trajectory leading all the way from capitalism to parecon. Pareconist workers’ control efforts would seek to attain allocation gains as well, plus new divisions of labor. Pareconist attempts to institute “participatory budgets” would seek as well to address norms of remuneration and job allocation and to engender participation not only in communities regarding public goods, but also in workplaces regarding all goods. Pareconist union and workers councils would seek to affect not only the conditions and circumstances of members’ jobs, but also the worthiness of undertaken projects, and would likewise try to link with consumer movements and spread the efforts to government sectors and consumer behavior.
In other words, the participatory economic vision put forth in coming chapters not only springs from and is consistent with past and present struggles to better people’s immediate lives in diverse ways, it also offers encompassing values and logic to link all these efforts and to enlarge each consistent with its own best aspirations but also with the logic and aspirations of others beyond.
And what about the newest and certainly very promising World Social Forum? Here is a remarkable amalgamation of movements, constituencies, activists, and projects from all over the globe linked by an open and experimental attitude, a commitment to participation, feelings of mutual respect, and attention to diversity and democracy, all celebrating the sentiment that “another world is possible.” In 2002, at its second incarnation, roughly 50,000 participants began to enunciate features that that better world might have. The most widely shared sentiments were rejection of markets and support for self-management, rejection of vast differentials in income and support for equity, rejection of homogenizing commercialism and support for diversity, rejection of imperial arrogance and support for solidarity, and rejection of ecological devastation and support for sustainability. No doubt WSF 2003 will have taken this agenda many steps further by the time this book appears. And like the WSF, parecon contributes visionary economic ideas in hopes that political, cultural, kinship, global, and ecological visionary aims will prove compatible and mutually supportive.
Participatory economics provides a new economic logic including new institutions with new guiding norms and implications. But parecon is also a direct and natural outgrowth of hundreds of years of struggle for economic justice as well as contemporary efforts with their accumulated wisdom and lessons. What parecon can contribute to this heritage and to today’s activism will be revealed, one way or the other, in coming years.
[Thank you Michael for permission to use your material here]
The writer is a social activist and advocate of participatory economics and participatory society. He is the author of Parecon from which the introductory chapter is excerpted here. He is also a founder and current member of the staff of Z Magazine as well as staff of Z Magazine’s web system: ZCom (www.zmag.org).