A PARTICIPATORY ECONOMY: What’s in a Name?

August 1, 2023

Four decades ago Michael Albert and I discussed what to call our post-capitalist economic proposal at some length. If memory serves we spent more than a year thinking about a suitable name, and mulling over different alternatives. Since our model abolished private ownership by “capitalists” of what socialists had long called “the means of production,” and since our proposal for how to democratically plan how the “socially owned means of production” would be used; we initially thought of calling our proposal “decentralized socialist planning” to distinguish it from “centralized socialist planning” as practiced in the Soviet Union and other non-capitalist economies after World War II. And, to be honest, that was my preference initially, even though I recognized that this name was “clunky” rather than “catchy.” Michael argued instead for calling our model “a participatory economy.”

One reason Michael argued for a participatory economy back in the 1980s was that unlike in Europe where the word “socialism” was not entirely unpopular, for many historical reasons, not least of which was the anti-communist witch hunts conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy after World War II, the word “socialism” was still a non-starter among 99% of the US population in the 1980s. Michael argued: Why saddle ourselves with a label that is so unpopular, when what we are proposing bears no resemblance to the centrally planned economies directed by totalitarian Communist parties in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which is what Americans have been taught “socialism” means? And I have long been happy that Michael won that argument between us back in the 1980s, and we decided to avoid the catch word socialism and instead chose participatory as the adjective that best describes our proposal.

However, over the years it has become apparent that like any name, the name participatory economy has disadvantages as well as advantages. On first contact with our model many have presumed that in a participatory economy everyone would have to participate in endless discussions and meetings with others about all the different kinds of decisions that must be made in the economy. The truth is that all economic decisions do affect everyone to some extent. Therefore, since we do argue that everyone affected should be involved, and since we do want decision makers to be well informed about the consequences of different choices, many have assumed this implies that we would have people participating in endless discussions and meetings. Years ago the socialist, feminist economist Nancy Folbre was one who assumed this would be the case, and she expressed her concern in a particularly poignant way. She likened our proposal for the economy to typical leftist meetings… and I can attest to this myself from decades of personal experience… where heated discussion and debate goes on for hours, all sensible people with “real lives” leave before midnight, and only a few fanatical, lefty die-hards with nothing better to do are still in attendance to decide things at 3 AM. Nancy aptly labeled the danger of this outcome “the dictatorship of the sociable.” She went on to explain that while this form of participatory, democratic decision making might work well enough if everyone were a die-hard lefty with nothing else to do, in her opinion it was not a good model for a society composed mostly of ordinary people who need to go home by midnight.

I’ve spent many decades trying to explain to people like Nancy that if they examine our actual proposals carefully they will discover our proposals bear no resemblance to Nancy’s characterization, which I agree with Nancy is a nightmare! But I have come to understand that like socialism, which to many Americans simply means “totalitarian Communism,” to many people participatory simply means endless discussion and debate by everyone. Whether we have, as I claim, successfully designed decision making procedures to avoid requiring people to spend endless hours in unproductive discussion and debate can only be settled by examining our concrete proposals in detail. But I can promise readers this much: When designing our proposals for decision making procedures we certainly had the goal of avoiding just the kind of outcomes that concern Nancy and others, because we shared those concerns ourselves as well.

However, with the benefit of hindsight I would like to add something to what only a full examination of our actual proposals can adequately address. As I see it there has long been a tension in all discussions about “democracy” dating back to Plato, Aristotle and beyond. On the one hand we have the high minded, philosophical principle that everyone should have a say in all the decisions which affect them, as well as access to whatever information is necessary to equip them to understand the consequences of those decisions (1). On the other hand we have the practical reality that there are only 24 hours in a day, and people have valuable things they want to do with their time beside participating in social decision making. My training as an economist guides me to treat this as a tradeoff between two goals: Maximizing informed participation in social decision making vs. minimizing the amount of time spent doing so.

For example, in politics we have representative democracy vs. direct democracy. Do we elect representatives to make political decisions for us, or do we make political decisions ourselves via referenda? And if we elect representatives, do we elect them every 6 years (Presidents in Mexico, and Senators in the US), every 4 years (Presidents and Governors in the US), every 2 years (Representatives in the US House of Representatives)? Or, do Prime Ministers serve until a vote of no-confidence is passed by a Parliament which then triggers a general election (the UK and Canada)? I leave to others to debate the advantages and disadvantages of different choices in this regard for political systems. But I want to suggest the following goal to guide us for the economy:

We want everyone to have access to whatever information is necessary to come to an informed decision themselves, after which we want decision making authority to be distributed according to the degree to which people are affected by an economic decision. But, we also want to minimize the time people must spend to do this.

I now believe this should be our self-conscious goal. Whether or not the procedures which comprise the “model” of what has long been called “a participatory economy” does this successfully is what those who examine our concrete proposals must judge for themselves.

Notes:

(1) Of course not all philosophers and political scientists have agreed with this conclusion! I am assuming that this is the conclusion which debates about “democracy” should have come to by 2023.

Notable Replies

  1. Aren’t all models merely guides? All the market socialist models that only economists know about as well. Just ideas some humans have come up with? Parecon offers a point of difference of course, but it’s still just a guide, a bunch of possible and coherent ideas. And it’s not even remotely close to being an actual thing and yet people are critiquing it, offering up changes, this and that, as if we DO know a bunch of stuff that would happen if implemented in its original form, which surely no one really does. All that stuff can be done while something like a Parecon is being put in place without issue. That’s assuming of course if something like Parecon was ever given the green light most humans would be up for the challenge because they voted it in or something to that effect in the first place. And surely it wouldn’t happen in one big bang. Arguing or debating about whether participation would result in endless meetings when we have actually no idea what having a Parecon would be like, or even a considerably planned socialist economy with some market stuff, is just weird to me. And I think not at all helpful. It’s just a possibility that’s worthy of notice and consideration like any other. We aren’t even close to ridding ourselves of the private ownership of the means of production. We aren’t even close to a good mix of planning and markets yet or something like Schweickart’s model with no labour markets or financial markets. We can’t even get a GGND up in the face of doom. Who knows what we are capable of doing? It would be a transitional process to get to a Parecon surely. You spent decades trying to convince someone of something that no one really knows will work or not? Isn’t it a transitional thing? Move to a, then b, then c, with a GGND first, bit of this, then that, ruptural change here or there if we get cocky and lucky, have the numbers and it’s needed or possible, then whatever seems a further possibility and something better, could be done and could lead to z, Parecon and it’s supposed impossible institutions, which by then may just seem obvious? I put Parecon at the end because it’s essentially still invisible, and we haven’t even started yet on the first step which gets us to a. By the time we get to y, if y is possible and even desirable, or maybe even before, long before, people will probably know whether a full blooded participatory planning system is possible, desirable, stupidly easy and, oh my god, who would have thought, time friendly. By then Seemingly Humanlike Intelligent Tech (SHIT) may have become actual AI and is helping us humans out through the kindness of its own artificial heart and superior intelligence. Or not! But only if Parecon is one of the many acceptable blueprints on the table which actually should be the case now because, well, the idea is here, it’s conceivable, more so than Chalmer’s philosophical zombies, it’s as good as any other vision and has it place further along the trajectory of change giving humans plenty of time to see its pitfalls and decide whether they want or need it.

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