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  • Endeshaw Negesse of Ethopia crosses the finish line to win the Tokyo Marathon in Tokyo February 22, 2015.

    Endeshaw Negesse of Ethopia crosses the finish line to win the Tokyo Marathon in Tokyo February 22, 2015. | Photo: Reuters

Published 24 February 2015
Winning should mean establishing new institutions able to accomplish necessary tasks of society.

Winning could mean that we won an end to a war, or to the IMF or World Bank. It could refer to winning higher wages, better work conditions, open information in a workplace, race or gender affirmative action, new ecological laws, or many other important gains.

But the question's intention is, “what would it mean to win another world?” And by "another world" is meant one that leaves behind the racism, sexism, classism, authoritarianism, ecological devastation, and international violence, and that in their place has profound virtues such as promoting diversity, enhancing solidarity, attaining equity and justice, conveying self managing power to all citizens, preserving the environment, and attaining international peace.

If that’s the question's intent, then winning would mean establishing new institutions able to accomplish necessary political, cultural, familial, social, and economic tasks of society while furthering the positive values we aspire to. It would mean establishing:

  • new ways of legislating norms, adjudicating disputes, and carrying out shared social projects: new polity.

  • new ways of procreating, nurturing, and socializing the next generation and of living in our households and enjoying our sexual and emotional potentials: new kinship.

  • new ways of celebrating and exploring collective identities, whether ethnic, racial, religious, or others: new community.

  • and new ways of producing our means of life, allocating it, and consuming it: new economics.

About  politics, kinship, culture, and economics, we understand current relations and their authoritarian, sexist, racist, and classist flaws. We know less, however, about institutional features that would make a new world worthy and viable. Yet to make organizing progress, we need to know more about the goal and about how to communicate it in ways suited to orienting and guiding immediate activity.

Regarding economics, Participatory Economics, or parecon, is my preferred replacement for capitalism. Parecon is built on four institutional commitments.

The broad structures by which people participate in economic life and decision making become nested workers and consumers councils of the sort common when workers and consumers seek to control their own economies. As an additional feature parecon’s councils would incorporate self management as the logic of decision making so that people influence decisions in proportion as they are in turn affected by them. Sometimes this self management would require one person one vote and majority rule. Sometimes it might require a different tally, or that only a segment of the whole populace votes, or full consensus. In parecon such options are tactics to attain self managing say for all actors.

Next, in a parecon remuneration would be for effort and sacrifice, not for output of one’s property or even output of one’s labors, and not for bargaining power either. To have equity, we earn more if we work producing desired outputs longer or harder, or under more harsh or harmful conditions. Remuneration is  for duration, intensity, and harshness endured – and not for property, power, or output.

This means that parecon rejects the that someone should earn by virtue of having a deed in his or her pocket. There is neither a moral or an incentive warrant for that. It also rejects a thuggish economy in which one gets what one has the power to take, as in market exchange. And, most controversially, parecon rejects that we should get back from the economy the amount we contributed to it by our personal labors. This is because our personal output depends on many factors we can’t control such as having better or worse tools, working in a more or less productive environment, producing more or less valued items, or having innate qualities that increase or fail to increase our productivity. Parecon doesn't reward individuals for any of that.

Third, if a new economy were to remove private profit and incorporate self managing councils with remuneration for effort and sacrifice, but were to simultaneously retain the corporate division of labor, its economic commitments would be internally inconsistent. Having 20 perent of the workforce monopolize largely empowering and more pleasurable work while leaving 80 percent left with more obedient, rote, stultifying, and less pleasurable work - which is what the corporate division of labor does - would guarantee that the former group, which I call the coordinator class dominates the latter working class.

In that case, even with a sincerely motivated commitment to self management, the coordinator class, by virtue of the work they do, would enter each decision discussion having set the agenda for it, owning the information relevant to debate, possessing the habits of communication necessary to conduct the discussion, and possessing the confidence and energy to fully participate. Workers, in contrast, having been exhausted by the disempowering work they are left to do, would come to decision discussions lacking the qualities needed to participate. Coordinators would determine outcomes and in turn see themselves as superior. In time they would decide to remunerate themselves more. They would streamline decision-making by excluding those below. They would orient economic decisions in their own ruling interests. In short, the corporate division of labor would trump nice intentions, bringing back all the old rot.

One class that exists above workers is owners, as we all know. By having a deed to property capitalist owners dispose over means of production, including hiring and firing wage slaves. But what this pareconish view highlights is that even having eliminated private ownership of productive property, and thus even with no more capitalists, classlessness is not necessarily attained.

Another group, also defined by its position in the economy, can still wield virtually complete power and aggrandize itself above workers. To avoid this coordinator class rule by about 20 percent of the workforce over the other 80 percent we must replace the familiar corporate division of labor with a new approach that parecon calls balanced job complexes.

Each of us works at some job doing some collection of tasks. If the economy employs a corporate division of labor, about 20 percent of us will do a job that is largely empowering and very likely possesses greater than average quality of life impact. 80 percent of us will be left with jobs that are largely disempowering and very likely possess lower than average quality of life impact. The former coordinator class will be empowered and become the economy’s ruling class. The latter working class will remain disempowered and subordinate.

In a participatory economy, in contrast, we combine tasks into jobs so that for each participant the overall quality of life and empowerment effect of his or her job is like the overall quality of life and empowerment effect of every other person’s job. Everyone has an average balanced job complex. We don’t have managers and assemblers, editors and secretaries, surgeons and nurses. The functions these actors now fulfill persist in a parecon, of course. Managing, assembling, editing, note taking, operating, care taking, and cleaning all still exist, but the labor to accomplish them is divided up differently.

Some people do surgery while most don’t, like now. The change is that those who do surgery also clean bed pans, sweep floors, or assist with other hospital functions. The total empowerment and pleasure the surgeon’s overall job affords is altered by remixing the surgeon's tasks. The surgeon now has a balanced job complex conveying the same total empowerment and probably also roughly the same quality of life index as the newly balanced job of the person who previously only cleaned up.

We remove the domination of what I call the coordinator class over all other workers not by eliminating empowering tasks, or by everyone doing the same things, both of which scenarios are not only irrational but impossible. Nor do we do it by merely extolling rote work as important, which is possible to do and is even familiar historically, but which is structurally nearly vacuous. Instead, we eliminate coordinator class rule by distributing empowering and rote work so that all economic actors are able to participate in self managed decision making without advantage or disadvantage due to their economic roles. There remains no separate coordinator class just as their remains no separate owning class.

Finally, fourth, what if our new economy has workplaces and communities that all commit have workers and consumers councils, that all establish self managed decision making procedures, that all adopt balanced job complexes, and that all remunerate for effort and sacrifice, but, in addition, our new economy utilizes central planning or markets for economic allocation? Would such a combination of defining economic features constitute a worthy vision?

With central planning, the central planners would be distinguished by the conceptual and design character of their labor in turn typically justified by their academic or other credentials, doled put parsimoniously. They would also seek to have agents in each workplace with whom they could interact and who would be responsible for enforcing the central plan, which means people who held similar credentials to the central planners and who were vested with similar rights.

The intrinsic dynamics of central planning are down goes instructions up comes information about the possibility of fulfilling them. Down goes altered instructions up comes more information. Down goes final instructions up comes obedience. This command structure is authoritarian and its class implications are to resurrect the coordinator/worker distinction in each workplace and in the whole economy which in turn sets up the conditions and means for violating equitable remuneration and self management in all matters. Even cursory analysis of central planning predicts that it would undo our other innovations, even if those other innovations were initially in place and sincerely desired, as does a look at central planning's history, and for these reasons central planning must be rejected as unfit for desirable allocation.

Markets are similar in their unworthiness, and the case is even more important because markets currently have so much more support around the world and even on the left. I hate to do the ills of markets the injustice of a summary, but offering more about markets in a short essay like this would be an injustice too, misleadingly implying comprehensiveness that couldn’t be present without much more attention given. In sum, markets misprice everything due to taking account only of buyers and sellers but not others affected by transactions. Markets create a rat race environment that breeds anti sociality thereby obliterating solidarity. In market exchanges "nice guys finish last." Markets make violating the environment not only highly likely due to not properly accounting for environmental effects, but essentially inevitable, as sellers are forced to seek means to raise profits and ensure market share in a context where avoiding the costs of ecological damage rears up as one very effective path to that end. Inside workplaces markets require vicious cost cutting to generate sufficient surpluses to avoid being out competed, which in turn requires a sector of the workforce who decides the cost cutting policies, and that sector, to do a good job cutting costs, needs to be immune to the pains induced by the cutting as well as schooled in making such decisions aggressively despite the human suffering the decisions impose.

All these failings lead to the coordinator class being reinvigorated. But if we reject markets for all these reasons and more, what can we incorporate to replace markets, as well as central planning, as an allocation component of participatory economics? The answer that parecon offers is participatory planning, a method of workers and consumers councils collectively and cooperatively negotiating inputs and outputs in accord with true and full social costs and benefits and in accord with each actor having self managing say.

Space forbids a full presentation of the structures, logic, and motivations of participatory planning, and many such descriptions exist online and in books in any case. The bottom line claim for participatory economics, however, is that combining workers and consumers councils, self managed decision making, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, balanced job complexes, and also a cooperative, collective, council based negotiation of inputs and outputs throughout the economy not only attains classlessness, but also propels solidarity, diversity, and equity. More, participatory planning apportions to each worker and consumer about each economic decision self managing influence.

In sum, Parecon doesn’t reduce productivity but instead provides adequate and proper incentives to work. It doesn’t bias toward longer hours but allows free choice of work versus leisure. It doesn’t pursue what is most profitable for an anointed few regardless of impact on workers, on the ecology, and even on consumers writ large, but orients output toward what is truly beneficial in light of full social and environmental costs and benefits.

Parecon doesn’t waste human talents by having people now doing surgery, or composing music, or otherwise engaging in difficult and skilled labor also do offsetting less empowering labor as well, but by this requirement instead surfaces a gargantuan reservoir of previously untapped talents throughout the populace while apportioning both fulfilling and onerous and especially empowering and rote labor not only justly, but in accord with true and full self management and classlessness.

Parecon doesn’t assume sociable much less divine citizens but instead creates an institutional context in which to get ahead in their economic engagements even people who grow up entirely self seeking and anti-social must be concerned for the general social good and the well being of others. That is the self serving mindset - as well as the neighbor serving and society serving mindset, parecon's institutions sustain.

For these reasons and many more parecon's advocates think attaining parecon is one part of what it will mean to win, and therefore hope to fill out their broad understanding of economic goals with comparably defined goals for polity, culture, and kinship, thereby answering compellingly and inspiringly the question “what do you want,” and thereby putting to rest the widespread despair-mongering fear that there is no better alternative.” Such accomplishments can help set us on the road not only to hypothetically answering the question “what would it mean to win,” but to actually winning, and then seeing what it would mean with our own eyes.


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