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Proposed tactics for a participatory economy

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I have now posted an e-book that I published five years ago which discusses using participatory economics as a lynchpin for activism organizing.  One of the chapters of that book discusses possible tactics for winning such an economy.  I am posting the contents of that chapter here, for consideration and discussion.

Perhaps the best way, and seemingly the hardest way to win adherents, is to ultimately show not only how [participatory economics] works but that it works -- demonstrate the effectiveness of the model with large-scale real-world experiments. After all, the history of social economy in the past century or so has been full of promises that did not bear out in reality. Understandably, many people are understandably hesitant to adopt or subscribe to any program without first seeing how it would work and that it would have more positives than negatives. If it can be shown that another world is possible, that's most of the struggle right there. 

There are a number of possible tactics to pursue, some of which include the following: 

Academic Research Academic economics has been more a handmaiden to power rather than a means to empower people. Mainstream economists have all but ignored the proposal for participatory economics, and have done next to nothing in the way of research of comparing participatory economics with other economies. But such research would be crucial, and increasingly common contemporary technologies -- perhaps a simulacra of a participatory economy, much like that done with Zynga's "Ville" games on Facebook (Farmville, Cityville, Frontierville, and so forth) -- make such research increasingly feasible. It's a potent possibility: Disguising a future theoretical participatory economy as a a game. 

Imagined depictions of a future: One possible way to raise awareness and might be to devise imagined situations -- science fiction, fantasy, and other depictions -- around the model. It could even represent an entire new approach to writing where dramatic literature was often heretofore animated by conflict between, say, "man against nature", or "man against man", drama could instead be animated by the quest for a shared goal, where everyone wins if it's achieved and everyone loses if not. We've seen the advantages of using imagined fiction in the political sphere and other realms, as inspiration from Star Trek with its myriad communities and the political organizing inspired by the Harry Potter series of books and films. It's also possible, though not without its potential disadvantages, that such depictions could also break their way into wider awareness within the corporate media (indeed four of the top five highest-grossing films in the world as of 2011 are depictions in fantasy or science fiction). Indeed, science fiction auteur Neal Stephenson has now raised a call saying that this must be the raison d'etre of science fiction writers.

Outreach in Independent Media: In order for proposals to be considered, they need to be out there for people to know and consider and debate. And the major corporate media in the United States studiously avoid any discussion of alternative economic models for obvious reasons. It may be possible that corporate media can be "tricked" on occasion into presenting ideas disguised in another format, but one balks upon considering the limitations of corporate media to deliver an honest and forthright debate on a future society. Even so, the alternative media in the United States has also overwhelmingly avoided the question of alternative economic models, including discussing models that have been proposed. But those alternative media are where the best hope for outreach and expansion of these ideas lie, and the support of such media, as well as the crafting of policies which nurture such media (as for example in the ongoing net neutrality efforts and recent community radio victories) is critical for building and maintaining our own media apparatus. Critical too are the efforts to defend against predations of corporate media, which have been considerable in squashing attempts to build more publicly responsive media efforts. 

Forge other tools modeled on a participatory framework: The internet has provide a welter of resources, and should be utilized by proponents of [participatory economics]. (I'm referring of course, to the internet least more or less as currently configured; if net neutrality isn't maintained and online freedom is squelched in large scales, corporations may grab that medium too.) Let me quote an email from one advocate of participatory economics who was also involved in some of the early development of Wikipedia, and referred to some principles of anarchism in Wikipedia's structure: 

Wikipedia was a wonderful example of anarchy, but we agreed at some point that we were (1) building an encyclopedia and (2) borrowing some principles from anarchism in order to facilitate that...I bothered in Wikipedia because it was accomplishing something--the world's greatest resource of information, [free] for all to use--not because it was anarchistic. The spread of pareconish [participatory-economics-like] principles will come from people adopting them into tasks with other purposes; if Wikipedia had been about proving an anarchist model for information aggregation, it would have fallen flat on its face on the millions of arguments that arise.

Along these lines, one idea which has been suggested would be to create an app or program which would allow users in current activist efforts to quickly and easily balance their work, determine remuneration, and forge self-managed decisions. 

Build alternative institutions: Related to the building of these proposed tools is the idea of building institutions that embody these values and our proposed structure. As we've seen, there have been a number of such businesses that possess balanced job complexes, pay per effort and sacrifice, and encapsulate principles of self-management. The book "Real Utopia" edited by Chris Spannos includes a number of such businesses and recounts of their experiences, including the publishers South End Press in Massachusetts and Arbeiter Ring Publishing in Manitoba, Mondragon Café also in Manitoba, and The NewStandard (an online news and journalism project based out of Syracuse, New York, which operated for three years). 

Convert existing institutions: As the experiences in Real Utopia can attest, it is supremely difficult to build and sustain a participatory enterprise, and the result still stands on rocky ground and tends to be widely ignored nevertheless. Harder still, but with the potential for far greater rewards, is the proposal to convert existing institutions into a participatory framework. Eric Patton on the ZNet website, in an amazing and shockingly little-read article, outlines how this might happen and what its dramatic consequences would be.  The essay is worth quoting at length: 

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. 

Suppose now that [the large-scale antiwar activist group] United for Peace and Justice decided to reorganize itself around principles of self-management, balanced job complexes, and remuneration according to effort and sacrifice as opposed to power and output -- the program advocated of participatory economics. Then what? 

At that point, enormous and immediate pressure would be brought on the rest of the left to follow suit. Grunts in myriad left organizations would begin demanding their own rights, that is, in this hypothetical United for Peace and Justice. 

...The real threat is always that of a good example. South End Press, Arbeiter Ring Publishing, Mondragon Café, 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.

If such participatory institutions, be they built from scratch or converted from retentionist structures, did succeed and establish a consistent flow of resources, it's possible that the surplus profits from those efforts can help forge existing political efforts in antipoverty work, labor organizing, environmental preservation, media reform, and so forth. 

This list of possible approaches can be extended further, perhaps indefinitely. But the tactics for exactly enacting any or all of these approaches cannot be described in a general sense since the appropriateness of one or another tactic always hinges on the situation at hand. 

A try-it-and-see approach is appropriate: implement one proposal, or an abbreviated version of it, see if it proves successful in advancing the values we deem important, and then expand and widen it further if it is successful, or revise and scrap this proposal or others in light of that feedback. An additional benefit of this method is that if, for whatever reason, this method can't work, we can know and make corrections or return to the drawing board to figure out an alternate proposal still, perhaps including details from previous attempts. But whatever else may be said, the forgoing is a proposal and like any proposal should be tried out, judged for its merits, and accepted or dismissed or updated as appropriate. Too often, proposals on the political left have ossified into dogma, often untested and more a merit of faith rather than experimentation, leading to something akin to religious wars rather than a scientific pursuit.

Discussion 2 Comments

  • Caragh - 11th Mar 2017

    Hi Mitchell

    Thanks for giving us the link. Will try get around to reading it- you could probably put it in the resources part of the IOPS site if you dont want people to forget about it. Well done for writing it too!Good to know you are still so passionate about these ideas :)

  • Dave Jones 12th Mar 2017

    Yeah, thanks for participating. I am wondering whether you think it is enough that United For peace and Justice simply adopt a participatory process or whether they would have to be clear in their messaging, their mission statement and goals etc, that they were anti-capitalist in their political philosophy? To build for lasting change I think groups that try to couch their politics in moderate language end up doing more harm than good.