Decentralization, Communism, & Model-Building
Wednesday October 08, 2008 00:08
by Wayne Price
From my Parecon Debate with Michael Albert
Further selections from my literary debate on Znet with Michael Albert, co-founder of Parecon. The full debate can be found on
In Kropotkin’s famous essay on “Anarchism” for the Encyclopedia Britannica, he wrote that, under socialist anarchism, “True progress lies in the direction of decentralization, both territorial and functional, in the development of the spirit of local and personal initiative, and of free federation from the simple to the compound….”
Parecon has decentralist aspects, in its roots in workplace and consumer councils. But economically, it proposes a series of back-and-forth responses among the councils of the U.S., guided by facilitators, to result in a single plan which will be accepted for a period. This single, overriding, plan covers the whole country, which in our case includes most of a continent. Not surprisingly, in your Parecon: Life After Capitalism, you have a section rejecting “Green Bioregionalism” (hc, p. 80f). Similarly, Robin Hahnel, has a section in his book, Economic Justice and Democracy, which rejects “Community-Based Economics” (trade pb, p. 181f). So, if Parecon is not centralist, as such, neither is it decentralist.
This limits direct democracy. Instead of a local council having a significant say in the economic (and other) factors that directly affect its people, the council has only a tiny voice, being one out of a zillion councils in the whole country, making a tiny impact on the whole plan. Most of those deciding on the plan (the 330 million other people) are not you or your workmates or neighbors. Once the overall plan is decided on, the local workplace may decide how to carry it out, and the local community may make local decisions, but only within the framework of the overall national plan.
I do not insist that everything be decentralized, but I do have a bias in favor of decentralization. Social institutions should be as decentralized as possible, as much in human scale as possible, with only as much centralization and big institutions and buildings as absolutely necessary. This makes it possible for people to directly control their lives and to make decisions whose outcomes they can foresee, without power being in the hands of distant authorities. But if some industries can only function with big factories in a few central places, so be it. Big universities might need to be supported by several regions. “Representation” may be needed, but it can only be democratic if people experience self-rule locally in day-to-day decision-making. Regions encourage social, economic, and political experimentation, different ways of handling similar problems
You seem to think that I advocate (small-c) communism (not statism, as you know, but as a method of motivating workers and sharing society’s wealth). First, I am open to several possibilities being tried out in different regions (Parecon, full communism, Takis Fotopoulis’ model, etc.). However, I have a personal preference, which is not to go immediately into full communism, where income is completely disconnected from work. Instead there needs to be some form of reward for work, as in the Parecon program or otherwise. But, I believe, the long term goal should be full communism (what Marx called the higher phase of communism): “From each according to their ability to each according to their needs.” Anything short of this still has some necessary inequalities, left over from capitalism. You write, “In parecon I get income for working longer and harder.” But some people are able to work longer and harder than others. And people have unequal and different needs and desires.
Already, our technology is potentially so productive that it could (eventually) provide plenty for all with hardly any labor. Unpleasant tasks could be rotated, with everyone expected to do their share. We could become so productive that there would be more people wanting work than there would be needed jobs (as foretold in William Morris’ News from Nowhere). People would combine necessary labor, what little is left, with creative crafts. I propose that a socialist-anarchist society (or Parecon) begin with a basic communist sector (according to what it can afford), such as health, and minimal food, clothing and shelter. Over decades or generations, as productivity (and social consciousness) rise, this sector can be expanded until it covers everything.
In Realizing Hope, you yourself conclude that at some time after Parecon has been in place, “…Maybe a new aim will be removing the whole idea of measure regarding human traits, or even the whole idea of warranting rewards at all” (pb, p. 188). You refer to the wonderful anarchist-communist utopian novel, Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed.
Concluding Statement: Model-Building and Electoralism
Much of our difference is that Michael Albert is a model-builder and I am not. This causes us to talk past each other, despite the wide range of things on which we do agree. Michael and other Pareconers keep on trying to interpret my comments as though I am proposing an alternate model of post-capitalist society. So they ask how a decentralized socialist society would work, how goods would be exchanged among regions, how libertarian communism would value goods, and so on? Frankly, I do not know the answers and am not worried about that.
It is important to have a vision, a utopian set of values, of a different, more human, unalienated, way for people to live and work and to relate to each other. This is opposed to the Marxist tendency to let the Goddess of the Historical Process take care of everything. That is a dangerous approach because it leads to accepting whatever the historical process turns up, such as totalitarianism, and calling it socialism. A workers’ revolution must be conscious, with a true analysis of how society works and with a deliberate goal. This is different from the capitalist revolutions, whose main task was to remove barriers to the market and then let it automatically perform; therefore it was possible to have all sorts of illusions and false consciousness. However this does not mean that a revolution of the workers and oppressed must have a worked-out model, as opposed to a set of values. The working people can deliberately set about to develop a new society, consciously trying out various approaches.
It can be useful for someone to develop a more-or-less detailed model of how a vision could be concretized, how it might actually work. Besides Parecon, I can think of Bookchin’s Libertarian Municipalism, Takis Fotopoulis’ Inclusive Democracy, Paul Goodman’s Scheme II in Communitas, Pat Devine’s ideas, Kirkpatrick Sale’s bioregionalism, Guild Socialism, Castoriadis’
plan factory,and so on. Not to mention the ideas Marx raised in passing in the Critique of the Gotha Program and elsewhere. (There are also models of decentralized market socialisms, which I reject but I would be against other regions invading an area which had adopted such a model, unless exploitation was reintroduced.)
It is important to study all these and other models, but I have no need to endorse any one (aside from rejecting market socialism or state planning). I am willing to be in the same revolutionary organization with people who are committed to any of them. No one knows how a free people would reorganize production and politics after a revolution.
I am an experimentalist. Under socialist anarchism, people will try out different plans at different times in different regions. There will be constant reorganizing. To quote Kropotkin again, from his encyclopedia article on “Anarchism,” “Such a society would represent nothng immutable….Harmony would (…) result from an ever-changing adjustment and readjustment of equilibrium between the multitude of forces and influences, and this adjustment would be easier to obtain as none of the forces would enjoy a special protection from the State.”
Once we agree on a general vision, then what matters most is our program for the here-and-now, what we are going to do, what we say to advanced workers who are listening to us (even if it is mostly propaganda for the future). Which is why I could be in the same organization as Pareconists, anarchist-communists, libertarian Marxists, anarchist-syndicalists, and so on, if we agree on our program for the next period.
This is why I keep on raising the issue of voting for Obama and other Democrats, even though this is a peripheral question for Michael and even though there are other Pareconists who disagree with him. Is there something in the Parecon program which leads Michael as well as Robin Hahnel (the co-founders of Parecon) to be willing to vote for an imperialist war monger? If so, this is a problem. Or is there no connection between the model of Parecon and one’s position on voting in capitalist elections? If so, this may be even worse. What good is Parecon if it gives no guidance to current political action?
(Michael’s comparison of voting for—and working for—Obama with getting a job in the capitalist economy is pretty weak. I have to work in order to feed myself and my family. I can live perfectly well without voting for my class enemy. I work because I have to; it does not imply support for capitalism. Voting for Obama, and urging others to do so, means giving political support to a politician and his capitalist program. Also, respecting other people’s motives does not require that we agree with them.)
Tom Wetzel has associated Parecon with the idea that mass movements of opposition should be participatory and directly democratic. I agree with this. And I agree with Michael’s belief that movements should be militant and threatening to the ruling class, so that it will make concessions. This approach would seem to contradict support for the Democrats and the passivity of reliance on capitalist elections. However, it is not necessarily connected to the specific program of Parecon as distinct from a general revolutionary libertarian socialism.
I believe that a revolutionary anarchist organization should not be primarily formed around a specific model of post-capitalist society. Instead it should be in general agreement on a vision, open to specific ways that vision may be eventually embodied, and in general agreement on a program for the coming period.
Right now we are at a major turning political turning point. A large part of the U.S. population is moving to the left, and many are losing their faith in capitalism. Right now, both Parecon and revolutionary class struggle anarchism are extremely marginal but this will change. We are parts of the same libertarian socialist movement and should work together where we can.
"THESE ARE THE TIMES THAT TRY MEN"S SOULS"...AGAIN... TIME FOR PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY?
What we may not be so quick to recall, however, is that there was much debate between the founding fathers as to what model our system of government should follow. Those such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry on one side favored a pure and direct democracy with the legislative power vested in the very hands of the people, while others such as James Madison, John Adams and George Washington held that a representative democracy would better serve the people than a true democracy because they believed it would protect the individual liberties of the minority from the will of the majority. Alexander Hamilton even went so far as to support the creation of a monarchy. In the end, those favoring representative democracy won the day and that is the system they put in place in the hopes of creating a "more perfect union."
Now we must ask ourselves, what would the founding fathers think if they were resurrected today to see what has become of their vision? One can only assume that they would begin to search for modern day patriots to meet them once again at the liberty tree in order to plan a new struggle for freedom and self governance. Although we continue to praise and honor those who founded our nation and sought to create a truly just form of government for it, do we really stop to reflect on whether we as a nation have in fact succeeded in preserving what they fought so hard to create?
Today, in contrast to our revolutionary ancestors, we as citizens of the United States generally observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. Over the decades and centuries we have allowed the erosion of the ideals of the founding fathers and the corruption of the principles which they enshrined in those so carefully conceived documents. We have been left with essentially no real power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. We may write an occasional letter to our senator or representative that generates a form letter in response and a statistical data entry that may or may not be weighed against the influence of some powerful corporate lobby. We may be permitted to participate in a march or demonstration of thousands or even millions, something our patriots of old would have marvelled at, only to be dismissed as a 'focus group' with no bearing on policy decisions.
How then is the government held accountable to the voice of the people? Are the people meant to speak only at the polls when given a choice between a select few candidates that may be equally corrupt? No, as Jefferson and his allies rightly believed, the people should be heard much more than that.
In spite of their good intentions, the system of representative democracy that the founding fathers opted for has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.
We have become so accustomed to this failed system of representative democracy that it may not occur to us that there are other alternative forms of democracy. In various places around the world participatory or direct democracy has been instituted both in concert with representative democracy, and as a replacement for it. It is a form of democracy that is designed to take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and to politically empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.
This site will attempt to explore in depth the concept of participatory democracy and how this grass-roots based form of governance could help bring us back in line with the principles this country was founded upon if it were allowed to take root here. In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…
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Monday, October 13, 2008
Decentralization, Communism, & Model-Building