Media in a Participatory Economy

June 21, 2024

For more than a decade, I had focused most of my political activism on media — making media (television, radio, writings, internet work), challenging dominant media, and working on government policy related to media.  Then I spent a number of years away from activism, and then I returned to being politically active but I switched, for personal and practical reasons, to working on economics — and focusing in particular on the model of a participatory economy.

I have not (completely) abandoned my previous media work; for example, I write and maintain a monthly newsletter on media policy and media activism, focusing on Chicago where I live.  In my most recent newsletter on media (dated June 2024), I made a small attempt to combine my interests in media with that of economics, to propose very briefly how media might work in a participatory economy.  There has been, as far as I know, no written commentary on how media would work in a participatory economy.  In this article, I would like to elaborate on my brief proposal.

First, a definition.  Media refer to the means and institutions for transmitting content — television, film, radio, books, magazines, newspapers, the internet, and so forth.  That can serve different purposes, such as informative news media, educational media, or entertainment media.  And it is increasingly easier to produce your own content; whether or not it is good enough to get paid for it is another story.  Or even if it is good enough to get paid for it, you may not get much or any payment for it.

In a market economy, you would produce your content and, if you want to get paid for it, you offer it on the market in the hopes that a consumer or consumers will buy the content.  But media are what economists term “non-rivalrous goods”.  If I have a sandwich and I eat that sandwich, nobody else can ever consume that sandwich — a canonical example of a “rivalrous good”.  But if I buy a book, I can read that book and then I could give that book to someone else and they could also read it without having bought the book, who could then pass it along to someone else, and the process could repeat indefinitely.  In a market economy, in order to maximize sales to a potential audience, all kinds of elaborate gatekeepers involving copyright and control have to be imposed.

In a participatory economy, media workers assemble in workers councils to produce whatever media they want and what they think would be socially valued.  In the annual planning process, those workers councils would submit proposals for producing those media.  Consumer councils would propose what media they would want to consume, and those proposals would be aggregated and sent to those workers councils which produce media.  Those worker councils that gain approval for their plans from consumer councils would gain the resources they need to produce the media they planned for.

Workers councils for making media, like any workers council in a participatory economy, would have to ensure that its social-benefits-to-social-cost ratio is greater than one — that is, the value of the outputs produced by the workers council would be greater than the value of the inputs being used by the workers council.  The widespread digitization of media in recent years and decades have reduced the costs of the tools and equipment necessary to produce media, thus making it considerably easier in a participatory economy for media workers’ councils to achieve a net-positive benefits-to-costs ratio.  

There are three follow-up questions that come to my mind, which I would like to try to address presently.  

(1) Individual people don’t participate in the participating planning process; they would have to be part of a workers council.  But what if you produce media that doesn’t involve other people, like writing a novel?  In this case, I think you would still join a workers council — it would be a workers council comprised of novel writers, who would work together to provide encouragement and organizational support for its member-writers.

(2) How can you plan what media you want to consume if the media aren’t produced yet?  The answer depends.  For certain media like a regularly produced news program like Democracy Now!, you know (or at least I do since I listen/watch the show every day) that you will reliably consume the media and plan for it accordingly.  For other media, say, if a movie is produced by the end of the calendar year that you didn’t know about at the beginning of the calendar year, and probably didn’t even exist at the beginning of the year, the problem is trickier but not insurmountable.  

Here the distinction of “coarse” versus “refined” plans can come into play.  An individual consumer can plan, for example, an annual plan to consume fifty movies in a year’s time, and would submit that as their “coarse” consumption plan, even if they don’t know which movies to consume in that time.  That would unfold over the year in a more “refined” form as that consumer watches the movies they were planning to.  And given the relative ease nowadays for distributing movies via online streaming services it has become much easier to turn “coarse” plans into “refined” ones, and even adjust if you want to watch more.

(For what it’s worth: I don’t consider myself a big movie watcher, but I keep track the movies I have watched in recent years, and my records show that I have watched 68 movies in the past four years.  Given this, my annual plan for consuming movies would average less than fifty in a year, but that’s just my own personal preference.)

(3) How would media workers get paid?  Like any workers in a participatory economy, they would get paid for the effort and sacrifice expended in producing the media that would be deemed socially valuable.  Unlike a market economy, payment is decoupled from output, and would not be dependent on the popularity of the media involved.  This would accord a greater degree of freedom from want for media workers, where they can concentrate on producing the media involved without having to worry about sufficient remuneration. 

While I’ve been discussing how media might work in a participatory economy, I haven’t yet mentioned what a participatory economy would not have compared to a market economy.  Media in a participatory economy wouldn’t be subject to a profit mandate, which in market economies limit the kind of media available by restricting it to those media which are profitable to produce.  Media in participatory economy wouldn’t have to impose copyrights since payment for producing media isn’t tied to imposing artificial scarcity on a non-rivalrous good and maximizing the profits of the output for same.  Top-down profit-maximizing corporations which make media would be maladaptive in such an economy because those on the inside would be wasting time in enforcing internal hierarchies rather than, you know, making media.  All told, this cements for me why I think media in a participatory economy would be better than that in a market economy.

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