Parecon, Planning and Programmes

Commentary- Joe Carolan

Within the Marxist tradition, there is much written about the need for a revolutionary transformation of society, but little vision of how an alternative, socialist society would function. Marx himself shied away from subscribing to any fut...ure blueprints for an ideal society- this would be for the people themselves to decide. This has been the central thread of the ‘Life after Capitalism’ debate within the movement, which looks at how both economics and democracy can be participative in a future socialist society.

Capitalist economics is based around a ruthless competition between firms and corporations, who seek to cut costs, maximise profits and exploit workers to dominate the market place. The ‘free market’ is supposedly the best way to distribute goods- according to former Irish Labour leader Pat Rabbitte; it is “one of the most powerful and successful means open to human society to organise its affairs”[58]. However, anger at the injustice of neo-liberal reforms has led a minority to seek out alternatives to the market itself- ‘Supply and Demand’ simplicities cannot justify a system that does not feed the starving if they have not enough money to buy food. Inspired by Marx’s principle “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need”, these anti capitalists look instead to an alternative economics based not on ‘the market’, corporations and exploitation, but grassroots democratic control.

“There are various models of a democratically planned economy. Here resources are allocated on the basis of a democratic process that involves horizontal relations among networks of producers and consumers – a radically different form of economic co-ordination from either capitalism (where allocation is the outcome of competition) or a Stalinist command economy (where resources are allocated dictatorially)”. [59]

Michael Albert calls this participative economics or Parecon for short. Albert identifies how in a participative economy, workers and consumers councils would democratically decide how resources were allocated-
“Workers and consumers need a place to express and pursue their preferences. Historically these have been organisations where workers congregate. In workplaces we call them workers councils. Regarding consumption, we call them consumers’ councils. Councils form whenever people rise up to try to take control of their economic lives…it has occurred virtually every time in history, most recently in Argentina. Councils are organs of direct organisation by those working and consuming...” [60]

Albert sees these workers councils as a way of breaking down the artificial divide between formal political rights and liberties and how decisions are made in economic life, and the basis of a new democracy. Workers councils have formed under different names in many revolutionary situations in history- the Soviets in Russia in 1905 and 1917, the Cordones in Chile in 1972 and the Shoras of Iran in 1979. Growing out of strike committees and workplace democracy, they were seen all over Europe after World War One, from Munich to Ireland’s own Limerick Soviet of 1919.

“Councils become the seat of decision-making power and exist at many levels, including individual workers and consumers, subunits such as work groups and work teams, and supra units such as divisions and workplaces and whole industries, as well as neighbourhoods, counties, and whole states… People in councils are the economy’s decision-makers… They are taken at different levels, with fewer or more participants, and different procedures… decision-making input should be in proportion as one is affected by decisions.”

Albert argues that in a Parecon, remuneration will be on the basis of the amount of work done. Allocation of resources and wealth will not be on the basis of private property or power.
“We work. This entitles us to a share of the product of work. But this new vision says that we ought to receive for our labours an amount in tune with how hard we have worked, with how long we have worked, and with what sacrifices we have endured at our work. We shouldn’t get more income by virtue of being more productive due to having better tools, more skills, or greater inborn talent, much less by virtue of having more power or owning more property.”
Parecon is important within the movement because it articulates a complete alternative to the current economic system, but the debate as to how it is to be achieved again touches on the paradox of dual power. Albert argues both against the market and central planning as distributive methods in an egalitarian society. Here he represents the anarchist critique that any centrally planned economic alternative to capitalism will replicate the failed bureaucracies of the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. He fears the rise of a ‘Co-ordinator class’ of the more educated or those with the more valued jobs, and proposes to prevent its emergence through the use of ‘balanced job complexes’, where everyone is allocated both mundane and creative work equally. [61]

In contrast, socialist writers such as Alex Callinicos defend the idea that we can plan how to use our resources, not just locally, but nationally and globally. In order for workers councils to be able to plan the economy democratically, they must first confront the capitalist system decisively. This will require both national and international co-ordination, a revolution, which will require local units to have a central plan. After such a change, certain problems will require nationwide co-ordination, such as railway lines, and the creation of an ecological, sustainable economy will be an international priority. Local community and workers councils can co-ordinate without a ‘Stalinist’ dictatorship forming, if they are based on the tenets of the Paris Commune of 1871, with every delegate elected by the grassroots, immediately recallable, and gaining no privileges but on the average industrial wage.

An Anti Capitalist Manifesto
In his book ‘An Anti Capitalist Manifesto”, Alex Callinicos briefly outlines a programme which takes the best from the reformist anti-capitalist camp of Bello, George et al and marries it with the demands of the ...grassroots movement in the West.
In what he calls “a transitional programme” (p132-133), he puts forward the following demands around which the movement can unite.

Briefly, summarised, these are-
(a) The immediate cancellation of Third World Debt
(b) The introduction of the Tobin Tax
(c) The Introduction of a Universal Basic Income for all citizens
(d) Reduction of the working week to 30 hours without loss of pay to fight unemployment and ‘flexploitation’.
(e) The defence of public services and renationalisation of privatised industries
(f) Progressive taxation to finance public services and redistribute wealth and income
(g) Abolition of immigration controls and extension of citizenship rights
(h) The defence of civil liberties and the abolition of laws such as the Public Order Act in Ireland and the Patriot Act in the US
(i) The dissolution of the military industrial complex of ‘armed globalisation’.

He also identifies four major principles or values of the modern anti capitalist movement, principles useful to liberal, reformist, autonomist and radical egalitarians alike. They are efficiency, sustainability, democracy and justice. The overproduction of capitalism results in huge crisis whilst millions starve. GNP is conventionally the measure of a nation’s economic well being, yet it cannot measure justice, democracy, sustainability or efficiency.

Callinicos argues that a democratically planned economy would be more efficient than the market because it would produce what people actually wanted- e.g. houses for the homeless. The word must be reclaimed by egalitarians so that a system that squanders billions producing weapons instead of hospitals or has food rot whilst people starve is defined as ‘inefficient’
Similarly, capitalism is not using natural resources in a sustainable way- unless we rapidly change our relationship with the environment, we will deplete many finite resources, and pollute the rest.

The prioritisation of economic growth often ignores costs to society’s environmental and social make up. Increased industrialisation and urbanisation may lead to the ill-planned “Urban Sprawl” effect that we have seen in Ireland, with high house prices finding their reflection in increasing homelessness. Rural depopulation may leave whole villages empty of their youth, and workers may have to spend more time commuting to work every day. People in Modern Ireland now complain of increased stress levels and “time poverty”. Growth can lead to intolerable traffic congestion and urban pollution if there is not proper planning in transport infrastructure, as can be witnessed daily on the streets of Dublin. GNP does not factor in depreciation to “environmental capital”- the “defensive expenditures” spent on cleaning up an oil spill is still recorded as growth. Those pioneering the economics of Sustainability point to the fact that growth always assumes that more output and consumption is better, creating what could be called “Really Gross National Product”.

The GNPs of Nazi Germany and the Stalinist USSR grew phenomenally each year in the 1930s, yet few modern economists would call for a return to such totalitarian tyrannies. Similarly, when examining the effects of modern neo liberal globalisation, we must also examine its record in the fields of justice, human rights and democracy. In many emerging East Asian economies, the widespread use of child labour by Western Multinationals has been exposed and questioned. Many of these economies, such as China, forbid workers to form or join independent trade unions, and there are few formal political rights for citizens. A “nation’s” economic growth without freedom for its labour force to organise or collectively bargain over wages masks the political exploitation of its population by its ruling elites: it also ignores justice and the development of people’s human rights- the position of women and racial minorities, the freedom to express one’s culture, the absence of war, torture or oppression.

This Chinese wall between economics and democracy must be broken by the global justice movement. Debates around ideas such as Parecon extend the idea of democracy outside of archaic 19th century formations such as national parliamentary chambers, posing the demand for participative democracy where we spend most of our lives, in the community and the workplace.


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