Why isn’t the participatory economy model more popular?

June 16, 2021

“[W]hen we wonder what to put in [place of capitalism], we are extremely perplexed”,

so said the noted economist John Maynard Keynes. The British economist Alec Nove put it in even more stark terms, writing that you have either markets or central planning,

“there is no third way.”

And yet, this year (2021) marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of two books (“Looking Forward” and “The Political Economy of Participatory Economics“) marking the effective debut of the economy model now known as a participatory economy (PE) — a proposed economy with neither markets nor command planning.

In other fields of study, if a longstanding problem has been solved, even in theory, it would merit coverage, attention. People would talk about it, students would hear about it in their classes. If it was a problem with huge ramifications, the announcement of a solution would be met with celebrations, spontaneous parties, declarations that this is the greatest thing ever.

In the thirty years since the debut of the participatory economy model, PE has been presented and re-presented in books, articles, fora, debates, websites, interviews. Even a handful of businesses which have come and gone (almost all gone, unfortunately) have implemented some aspects of PE. As far as I can discern, there’s barely any coverage, even on the left and among left activists, of PE. My own attempts over the years to help spread the word have been most often met by shrugged indifference, and usually a polite nod among the relative few who bother to listen, but not much more.

So why isn’t PE more popular? Why isn’t this proposed solution to one of society’s more longstanding and vexing problems more popular, even among left activists and other likeminded folks? I can posit a few possible responses to this question, listed below. The real answer could well be something else, or something more, or some combination of what’s below, or something altogether different.

Most economists don’t care

The considerable majority of economists, like much of society and the world, has been beholden to the neoliberal dogma of markets uber alles for decades, and they’ve been hostile to non-market alternatives, even theoretical alternatives. The thing is, who are everyday folks naturally going to turn to for answers about economics? Mainstream economists, of course, and if mainstream economists collectively shrug or ignore non-market alternatives, those alternatives will never get the imprimatur of the profession that most people rely on for answers. To be fair, the economics profession has gotten a comeuppance in recent decades, due to no small part by the 2008 financial crisis. Nevertheless, the tree of market economics still stands even with all the notches and cuts — for now.

The media don’t care

Another way to gain the attention of masses of people is via the media, which for a long time (and to a great extent today) is the way to build awareness for a given issue or cause. However, most of the major media are profit-oriented corporations, which also adhere to neoliberal dogma, as well as the restrictions of content imposed by the Propaganda Model. Hence, there’s no reason for the mass media to give the PE model any attention. Yes, the internet has diluted the strength of the media in some ways, but the institutions and the ideology remain in place — for now.

Left organizations are classist

One of the greatest essays I have ever read is “Winning” by Eric Patton. Here’s an excerpt:

[L]ook at what’s going on at Northwest Airlines [in 2012]. The mechanics’ union is on strike. The machinists’ union is crossing the mechanics’ union’s picket line and doing some of the mechanics’ work. Let me repeat that. The mechanics’ union is on strike. The machinists’ union is crossing the mechanics’ union’s picket line and doing some of the mechanics’ work. That where we currently are. If you punch a time clock, what are your options? Man, your job already sucks. You may as well make the best of it, because it ain’t changing anytime soon… From an organizational standpoint, the left has a fatal problem: it’s classist. Working people are not stupid. They know. Maybe not consciously, but they know nonetheless.”

Most institutions on the left mimic the setup on the right, so it’s understandable why there’s been little traction on the left for democratic planning — they don’t want to lose what position and power they have.

PE doesn’t have a popular example

The New York Times Magazine published an essay about some how scientific discoveries that helped humanity didn’t do so at first; those discoveries languished, sometimes for decades. Take for example Louis Pasteur’s namesake technique of heating cow’s milk to kill deadly bacteria. Pasteur discovered that in 1865, but the United States would not pasteurize its milk at a large scale until the 1920s. The article explains why: “[P]rogress is never a result of scientific discovery alone. It also requires other forces: crusading journalism, activism, politics.” In the case of pasteurization, the tide turned when a department store part-owner saw two of his children die from milk-borne diseases and he launched a campaign to introduce wide-scale pasteurization. This faced resistance from both milk consumers (who didn’t want pasteurization to affect the taste of milk) and the milk industry (who didn’t want to change their production methods). Government investigations, scientific, political reformers, campaigned for years, before ultimately succeeding.

I wonder if a similar parallel can be drawn with PE. We have what we think is a better model, but that doesn’t automatically make it into being. We need to build an example that people can see and can’t be ignored; possibly, many examples. Eric Patton also discusses this in a passage worth quoting at length:

Remember why we, the United States, invaded South Vietnam? Remember why we overthrew Allende in Chile? Or the democratically elected Sandinsta government in Nicaragua? How about “our” (meaning “U.S. elites'”) longstanding violence and hatred toward Cuba? Or our…festering rage at Hugo Chavez in Venezuela?

The real threat is always that of a good example. South End Press, Arbeiter Ring Publishing, Mondragon Cafe, The NewStandard — these organizations may all be organized around a participatory model but they are also all small, and thus easily ignored by the broad United States left, which is not eager to incorporate their participatory economic organizational principles into what they do.

But if a large outfit like United for Peace and Justice, with its one-million-dollar per-year budget, forswore the Dark Side of the Force, going participatory instead, you would suddenly have an example too large to ignore. People all over the left would know about it. They would begin thinking about it, they would start asking uncomfortable questions about it, and very quickly they would begin demanding it — unions, civil rights groups, feminist groups, environmental groups — you name it. Dominoes would begin to fall very quickly.

Suddenly, you’d have a participatory left, emanating real pressure on the society at large. And just as suddenly, there would be, from the elite standpoint, ungodly pressure brought to bear to do something, anything, to make the problem go away. Troops home now, single payer health care, out of Haiti, seriousness about addressing global warming, out of Palestine, a move away from the oil economy, media images of women, public transportation, a less racist legal system, more honest media coverage. Name it. What would you like to change in society today?

The power levels possessed by such a left would be immense. Suddenly, we’d be the ones setting the tone, dictating tempo, calling the shots, playing offense, writing the rules. Elites would be on the defensive, running terrified, looking for anything and everything to kill the monster, to make the movement stop.

As long as we did our jobs properly, the movement would never stop. We’d just keep winning and winning and winning.

Would it really be that easy? No. Because the hard part is getting United for Peace and Justice to organize around participatory principles. But once you do that, the hard part is done. Everything else becomes gravy.

Those of us involved in an international group of PE advocates and allies are working towards building tools that can help bring to life one or more such large-scale examples. But others reading this should also work to instantiate other examples.

What do you think of these reasons? Are there other possible reasons I left out? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Notable Replies

  1. Nice article, thanks for sharing!

    I agree with a lot of what was said, but I think one big reason is that it’s hard to easily grasp what’s being proposed. The proposal is so different from how things work today, so it just naturally takes some time to digest. I remember when I first came across the old website; I spent many days reading the main pages over and over trying to let everything sink in. Even when I thought I understood it, I later realised I had some subtle misunderstandings.

    I also think that, unfortunately, a lot of people misunderstand the model. I’ve seen many comments describing Parecon as some kind of “meeting hell” where they imagine it being bogged down by endless meetings. Considering the main procedure was specifically designed to have no meetings at all, I’d say there’s been some kind of communication failure here.

    Like I mentioned earlier, I think part of the problem is that it takes time to digest something of this scope. But I also think there are two things that could help:

    1. Take the model out of theory world and present it in ways where people can interact with it instead of just reading about it. The post touches on this, but presenting the model using interactive methods can help remove the potential for misunderstanding.

    2. Clearly separate the “hardcore” writings from the “layman” writings. I personally have enjoyed how the model is presented in extreme detail. However, I’ve come across a lot of economist terminology that I don’t think most people are familiar with. When I first started reading about this I remember constantly googling various phrases so I could better understand what was being proposed.

    I don’t think it should be watered down, because the details are very important, but I think the hardcore language in some of the literature contributes to the barrier that has to be overcome for most folks. If there could be a clearer separation of what’s for beginners and what’s for hardcore folks I think that would help.

    It’s tricky because I suspect no matter how good of a job we do with this, it’s still going to take some time to sink in due to it being a total paradigm shift in how we think about economics and daily life.

  2. Great article! Definitely an important point that needs addressing.

    I agree with the points in the article. We can expect concentrations of power, the media, economists and others to not take any interest in the model. The people responsible for advocating the PE model are the left so I think the question should primarily be addressed to them. So how do we do this?

    Yes, I agree. I think the best way to address this is to do more of the basics well. In other words education. We need lots of people produce lots of various explanatory content to address understandings and confusions.

    We need lots of basic level content as well as more advanced content too. Often the basic model isn’t understood well so when people make content that is more advanced basic questions come up that require answering before people understand the more advanced content. It happens quite a lot.

    So, I guess what Im saying we need to first do good old fashioned good quality education work. Is there something more we need or can do right now?

  3. I think it would be nice to have more video content with animated visuals that help illustrate what’s going on. Kind of like the images that are on the new website, but with someone talking through everything. That might be a good start, because it seems like Youtube videos are a popular way of digesting new ideas these days! Someone else might have a better idea though.

  4. That’s what we’er working too.

  5. Has anyone considered making a game using parecon as a central theme? Something that may even have competing allocation methods of capitalism versus parecon. It could even a board game.

    Also in the same vein could there be weekend or even summer camps that model the organization and social structures to train future leaders.

    Then maybe small group (farms/kibbutzim) collectives to showcase and train others. I would believe many would find hope and comfort in such arrangements.

  6. I’ve considered it and even blogged about it; it’s certainly an idea worth pursuing. One idea is to create a grand role-playing game of a participatory economy – maybe even start a company organized on participatory economic principles (balanced jobs, remuneration per effort/sacrifice).

  7. I think Mitchell’s question and suggested answers are really important and should be widely discussed. I would like to add one more point to Mitch’s list of suggested answers:

    We, who advocate a participatory economy, need to become better at explaining the model and especially our suggested participatory planning procedure to ordinary people. The problem is that, so far, the planning procedure has understandably been explained and described predominately in economists’ terms using abstractions and based on economists’ assumptions. As a consequence, the detailed description of the participatory planning procedure runs the risk of appearing very far removed from real-life situations and circumstances and do not necessarily appear credible or convincing to non-economists.

    So, for instance, when we suggest that consumers prepare, submit and adjust consumption proposals for the coming year, we need to better explain how this can be done in a credible way and how the planning procedure accounts for all consumers, including ones that are not directly represented, e.g. visiting tourists from external economies.

    And we need to explain exactly how the very many different versions of a good that is priced in the planning procedure will also be assigned individual prices that reflect differences in the consumption of resources in their production.

    And we need to better explain how a decentralised system with self-managed individual workplaces will organise and fund important coordination tasks such as the collective coordination and planning of things like logistics, supply chains, actual distribution of both capital, intermediate and final goods, and conflict solving.

    And when we say that individual consumption and collective consumption is treated similarly and there is no difference between the production of individual goods and collective goods we need to explain what this really means in practice since the production of many public services, e.g. public transportation, are very complex and will presumably need to give consumers a more direct say in the design and execution of the services compared to individually consumed final goods such as shoes.

    I think all these issues and many others are important to address and discuss to make our proposal appear credible and convincing to non-economists that are not familiar with customary abstractions and assumptions in economics but who are starting to doubt capitalism and want to believe that there is an alternative to markets.

  8. Agreed! Keep it simple, especially in the beginning when there will be a “mixed economy” of PE and capitalism. Capitalism has many flavors (Say Nordic versus Anglo nations). The starting point could be a coop, especially if it is focused on services too expensive for individuals to easily afford, like childcare, senior services, educational tutoring, adolescent mentoring (i.e., “Big Brother/Sister”).

Continue the discussion at forum.participatoryeconomy.org


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