ParEcon Questions & Answers

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Is Even A Good Vision, Good?

fNear the end, we return to the beginning. I am still wondering, even if parecon is a great vision, worthy, viable, even attainable – are we better for having it, or would we be better off without it. Will it cripple us rather than aid us? 

There is a surprisingly prevalent type of criticism of economic vision as extensive as parecon that we have yet to address. It doesn’t charge that parecon is unable to meet human needs by reason of poor incentives, or impossible requirements, or anything else explicitly identified. Quite the contrary, it finds no fault on this score. And it doesn’t charge that parecon is deficient because despite being able to effectively accomplish economic functions, parecon subverts values that we aspire to, whether by accidental omission or willfully. Quite the opposite, this criticism praises the values and sometimes even the structures of parecon. This critical response resists aggressively advocating parecon, in fact, precisely because parecon has every appearance of being an economically and socially positive vision. Parecon is resisted, that is, because it appears to be so good.

Exactly. Isn’t any vision detrimental to improving society, because however wonderful it may seem vision is never truly perfect and also because vision inevitably leads to closed-minded sectarianism, which entrenches its faults.

Critics with this inclination generally argue…

  • First, society and people are too complex to perfectly predict. Thus, in some fashion all efforts to project future institutions, however insightful, must fall short of optimal and be flawed compared to what would be ideal. Experience is the only corrective, and to have instructive experience requires experimenting and evaluating practical results, step by step, without prejudging possible destinations. We should not adopt a full vision until we implement one. Preconception of a full institutional vision, rather than just of clear values, overextends our capacities.
  • Second, in espousing a set of institutional aims and trying to get people to share them, people will inevitably become invested in those aims. Identities will become wrapped up in their worthiness. Energies will go to defending them irres- pective of actual logic and evidence. Inflexibility will set in. Arrogance will arise. Advocates of fully formulated institu- tional vision will lose the ability to learn and will begin to mechanically impose their aims even on the supposed beneficiaries of vision. Little attention will go to alteration, improvement, addition, or reconstruction, as compared to if we were guided by practice alone, not preconceived vision.

These critics of preconceived vision conclude that the right way to attain vision is through the experience of everyone experimenting, without detailed pre-envisioning and without sectarianism- inducing espousal of compelling, encompassing aims, and without efforts to get widespread shared agreement. We should say only very general things about what we want—such as that the future should be just, equitable, reduce hierarchy, and so on.

We agree that error and sectarianism are both possible faults. But how should we respond to these insights?

Consider two opposed approaches.

  • The first approach employs what ecologists call the “precautionary principle,” which says that in the face of uncertainty and inevitable human subjectivity, we should be aware of our limitations and should act very cautiously to minimize tendencies toward negative consequences.
  • The second approach we call the “red-light principle.” It says because of uncertainty and possible sectarianism, we should stop any attempt to pre-envision the future. We should not develop and share full and compelling vision like that put forth in this book, whether for economics or for any other sphere of social life, because such vision will not serve as an aid to moving forward, but as an obstacle.

vI believe the precautionary principle is far more appropriate than the red-light principle.

For one thing, before stopping the pursuit of compelling vision, we ought to understand the cost of doing so.

Suppose a movement obeys the red light principle and chooses to forego a widely shared compelling vision that reveals how new defining institutions would operate, why they would get their assigned tasks completed, and why they would yield vastly superior outcomes than current institutions.

  • First, this movement will not have a good notion about what experiments to undertake to learn as it proceeds. Just as scientists need theoretical frameworks to guide their choice of experiment, so too political activists need overarching vision to guide their choice of social experiment.
  • Second, lacking widely shared vision to inspire membership, generate hope, sustain commitment, and provide coherence and identity, the red-light movement will not have a sufficiently wide base of membership and participation to grow beyond a small scale.
  • Third, lacking a widely shared compelling vision will not mean there will be no such visions operating on the left. Quite the contrary, those who don’t care at all even about the precautionary principle will still develop and employ vision, most likely with market coordinatorist values and aspirations, which will then guide (and limit) experiments in new relations as well as strategies for winning change. There will not be an absence of vision if those attuned to not overreaching our experiential and conceptual bounds and to not being sectarian entirely eschew vision, but instead there will be a vision developed and held by narrow elites who don’t have such concerns. So the movement that doesn’t seek shared public vision will either fail to inspire support sufficient to win significant gains (which is our prediction), or if it does inspire such support, it will implement a narrowly held vision contrary to all but elite aspirations.

So yes, inaccurate prediction and sectarian attachment to vision are indeed possible problems of pursuing shared vision. But we believe that stop-light advocates have chosen the wrong solution to averting these problems: namely, dismissing serious and compelling institutional vision entirely. This “solution” repeats a more common mistake that operates in many venues. Here are two related examples:

  • Someone sees that technologies, medicine, and science can oppress people. Their proposed solution: dump technology, medicine, and science.
  • Someone sees that many reforms in practice coopt dissent and legitimate existing oppressive structures. Their proposed solution: dump reforms.

In these cases, as with vision, there is an unwarranted leap from justified precaution to red-light debilitation. A true critical characterization of some instances of technology, science, medicine, reforms, or (in our case) seeking vision, wrongly extrapolates into a rejection of these things outright.

Of course many technologies are oppressive, including destructive weapons, pollution-generating cars, and alienating and disempowering assembly lines, not to mention nuclear or biological weapons. But these are not the only technologies we have, and there are other technologies that are positive– shoelaces, cooking utensils, aspirin, eyeglasses, solar generators. The whole category— technology—isn’t, in fact, infected. Moreover, the reason that many technologies are oppressive isn’t that there is something intrinsically harmful in creating innovations of design that incorporate knowledge of laws of nature. Rather, the harm arises from social relations that create sectors of people able to produce and use technologies to harm some constituencies to the advantage of others. More, the choice to do without technologies is even worse than the problem of having many defective ones. If implemented, it would plunge us into a range of suffering that would be unfathomable. What ought to be ruled out is therefore not tech- nologies (or medicine or science) per se, but oppressive technologies (medicine and science), and what ought to be sought is ever more effective means of producing desirable technologies while guarding against their misuse as well as against the harmful elitist trajectories imposed on technology creation and use. Following the precautionary principle in this case, in other words, doesn’t lead us to suicidally reject all technologies but to carefully pursue desired technologies so as to maximize positive effects and avoid ill effects. Yes, of course we should have humility before the complexity of technology. But we should not have so much humility that we entirely cut off our capacities to innovate. Paralysis is not progress.

Consider now the example of reforms. Sure a reform’s accomplishments can be insufficient to warrant the effort expended to win it. And certainly a reform’s desirable consequences can be outweighed by the extent to which it dulls dissent or ratifies existing oppressive structures, or by intended or even unintended negative consequences. But to notice these potential problems and in response rule out reforms per se would mean ruling out all changes that fall short of entirely transforming social relations. It would mean not fighting against unjust wars, not seeking better wages, not trying to gain more power for grassroots constituencies and their organizations, and not attempting to diminish racist or sexist relations, and in these ways, it would lead to becoming a callous movement that ignores immediate suffering and therefore deserves little support.

So the problem is not reforms per se, but pursuing reforms as the best gains that we can possibly hope for and thus in ways that presuppose maintaining underlying injustices. The problem is not reforms, that is, but reformism. And the alternative to reformism is not to dump all reforms (following the red-light principle), but to fight for reforms in ways that not only seek worthy immediate gains, but increase movement membership, deepen movement commitment, enrich movement understanding, develop movement infra- structure, and in short, create preconditions for winning still more gains and ultimately fundamental change.

The above examples may seem a needless digression, but I suspect that those who reject technology, those who reject all reforms, and those who reject compelling institutional vision are all making essentially the same error. A real problem is rightly identified. In the case of vision the problem is that we can have incomplete, inadequate, or wrong vision and we can misuse desirable vision. But it is wrong to propose as a solution that we dump vision. We should abide the precautionary principle by trying to develop and employ vision well, not put up a red light.

So how can we make serious, compelling, shared institutional vision an asset rather than a debit?

We can work to ensure:

1    That vision illuminates the new society’s defining features but does not overstep into utopian wish fulfillment or pursue details that transcend what we can reasonably imagine.

2 That vision is accessible and becomes widely known, understood, and publicly shared, so that vision’s creation, dispersal, and use is itself a participatory phenomenon fostering a growing movement of informed, careful, and always learning advocates.

3    That vision is debated, dissected, refined, and improved as thought and experience permit. That is, it is not statically defended, but instead steadily enriched. Vision is not seen as an end point, but as a source for continuing creation, innovation, experiment, and development.

4    That flexible, evolving, and enlarging vision is rooted in careful thought and experience and helps guide current programs so that our contemporary efforts lead toward what we desire for the future.

In this book we have sought to pose a particular vision clearly and accessibly, based as best we could not only on our own logic and experience, but on that which has accumulated during the history of leftist struggles in past decades. We have tried to respect the limitations of social prediction and the dangers of dogmatism by promoting a critical, evaluative, experimental, and open process. But as to the future trajectory of pareconish vision, there is a little ditty that applies nicely:

The viewer paints the picture,
The reader writes the book,
The glutton gives the tart its taste,
And not the pastry cook.

Put differently, the implications of a vision depend ultimately on movement responses. It is not books that will determine how vision is used, but those who read books and extend, alter, apply, and utilize their offerings.

Next Entry: Parecon and Culture?


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