ParEcon Questions & Answers

Next Entry: Producer’s Role

Consumption and Parecon?

ffThe description of participatory planning was very helpful, but I would like to understand consumption better – both in capitalism and, in contrast in parecon. So how about we go over that a bit?

Consumption has two facets—what we do individually and what we do collectively. How about if we first look at collective consumption?

Okay, and let;s start with under capitalism?

How are millions of citizens of a capitalist county organized so that their different desires emerge as demands for “public” goods? Who decides? Who pays? We need to consider purchases of roads, schools, hospitals, parks, fire equipment, and social services. Yet, even this does not exhaust the list of “things” consumed collectively by members of the capitalist county we will call Jefferson Park.

For example, there is the way the county looks, largely deter- mined by its architecture. And there is the county’s ecological health, determined by pollution standards and the availability of ecologically sound goods. Thus far more goods than are usually deemed “public” comprise the county’s collective consumption.

In capitalist Jefferson Park, it is officially the county government that decides on the mix of public goods and the taxes that will be levied to pay for them. But in Jefferson Park the government inevitably caters to lobbies that wield power in proportion to their wealth. Traffic lights are erected and streets re-paved in upper- and middle-class areas. Toxic wastes are dumped near the ghetto. County government also determines the location of public and private buildings by setting zoning ordinances in response to pressure with wealth being more important than numbers of voters.

Consider hospitals: How many are in Capitalist Jefferson Park county? How are they designed? What ailments do they treat? The number of private hospitals established depends on whether they attract investors, which in turn depends on the county government’s efforts to provide services. The number of public hospitals established depends on the county budget, which is in turn affected by the tax base held hostage by business. In a system where those who pay the piper call the tune, the design of any hospital and disposition of its resources will naturally reflect the tastes of its financiers. If a hospital’s clientele is wealthy, then providing attractive rooms, fine care, and a maximum of amenities justifies high fees and the hospital becomes private. If the hospital’s clientele is poor, much of its revenue must come from the county budget and budget crises will necessitate reducing costs and increasing “throughput” per day by rushing patients through treatment, often prematurely. Amenities will not translate into profits. The disposition of resources thus is geared to speed and thrift and avoiding embarrassment or lawsuits—not to comfort or care.

The influence of money over county policy gives rise to a “sensible” passivity among most of the population in capitalist Jefferson Park. With less time free from the daily struggle for survival, and county officials already beholden to wealthy donors, county politics reduce the majority of the county’s people to ignorance and apathy regarding important decisions. This apathy is interrupted by occasional outbursts of rage at corruption, incompetence, or a tax burden grossly out of proportion to benefits received. The result is that most of the populace has little say in deciding whether a hospital should be constructed, what its design should be, and whom it should serve. The same holds for construction and repair of roads, fire stations, airports, the location of factories, the location and quality of schools, libraries, recreation centers, and health clinics, and the mixture and incidence of taxes to pay for all these. Most capitalist Jefferson Park consumers never know what issues are at stake, what alternatives they have, that they could do something other than leave decisions to government bureaucrats.

Conservatives insist that the solution lies in taking decisions out of the hands of government—whose decisions are often corrupt and biased and “necessarily” coercive—and leaving them to the market, where “all choices are voluntary and freedom is preserved.” But decisions about parks, roads, schools, and fire protection affect large numbers of people. Even mainstream economists have long recognized there is nothing efficient or democratic about leaving such decisions to market allocation. Such decisions should be collectively made, preferably in a way that properly values available
options and guarantees everyone an equal and effective opportunity to participate without wasting their valuable time.

ffOkay, what about tThe Participatory Case? 

In hypothetical participatory Martin Luther King County (MLK), all citizens belong to their neighborhood council, their ward council, and the MLK council, as well as to still larger and more encom- passing councils. With this structure, not all ward or county council members need to attend all ward or county council meetings. For really important issues, it is agreed, in our hypothetical case, that decisions are made by a referendum of all members with whatever voting system is warranted. Other times, it may be that only representatives sent by neighborhood councils to ward councils or by ward councils to county councils deliberate and vote. Meetings are always open and televised, with very prominent notice before referenda occur. In addition, one county workplace is the Collective Consumption Facilitation Board (CCFB), which is empowered to facilitate decision-making regarding county collective consumption. The CCFB is governed by the same participatory rules as any other workplace. Each neighborhood and ward council has its own smaller CCFB to facilitate their collective consumption decisions, and the same holds for cities, states, and regions.

So we see decisions being made at the various levels of individual, neighborhood, ward, and county. To fully understand collective consumption requires relating it to the planning of all economic decisions. Here, however, as a first step, we emphasize relevant local institutions and the logic of some of their procedures.

MLK county determines short- and long-term collective consumption priorities and plans. It chooses between projects like new athletic complexes, cultural centers, hospitals, schools, and bus systems, or no new efforts at all. The county council makes decisions by referendum of the whole council, using methods they agree on for a variety of proposed projects. Competing collective consumption alternatives arise out of communications between the CCFB and county council representatives or just messages from neighborhood councils. Again, we are not trying to provide a detailed blueprint that must be adhered to by all parecons, not only because most of the details of a new economy will only be learned via the experience of creating it, but also because there will be no such detailed universal blueprint. Different parecons in different countries and different workers’ or consumers’ councils in a given parecon can in many instances arrive at different approaches even for doing similar things, depending on their histories, situations, and preferences. It is only the broad values and the overarching structures that are universal from parecon to parecon and within one parecon from unit to unit. At any rate, in this hypothetical descriptive account of a particular parecon’s operations, the CCFB has data about the prior years’ plans as well as projects that were not approved last year. A first set of options includes a continuation of plans in progress, a listing of other plans previously desired but delayed, and a list of proposals for possible new collective consumption projects received by the CCFB throughout the year from neighborhood councils, individuals, and workplaces.

Participatory planning procedures then refine these many possibilities into more precise options or pass them up to more encompassing councils for choices to be made by appropriate voting procedures. Although additional participation by citizens requires that more of their time go to managing collective consumption than under capitalism, it is less time than they previously spent compensating for the ills induced by profit-motivated decisions.

In the same way that the county determines its collective consumption preferences, ward and neighborhood councils consider such issues as further improving local day care facilities, scheduling food delivery, re-seeding neighborhood parks, changing pool schedules, building a new movie complex, and enlarging the local library. Neighborhood CCFBs facilitate such decisions by listing options and enumerating their likely effects. Instead of the whole county participating, it is agreed that insofar as these decisions have an overwhelmingly local impact, only members of the affected ward or neighborhood will cast ballots, though ultimately each neighborhood’s plan is summed into the plan for the whole county, and then summed into the plan for the whole society, and processed through participatory planning, with the possibility of other constituencies weighing in as they are affected.

The difference between capitalist Jefferson Park County and participatory Martin Luther King County should be clear. In the capitalist case, collective consumption succumbs to the will of government bureaucracy and powerful private interests. The definition of options and their refinement into final choices rests with “professionals” subject to pressure from private lobbies. Most citizens are estranged from decisions, since the process and outcomes accommodate only the wills of powerful elites motivated by a desire to maximize their own profits and status.

In Martin Luther King County, individuals, neighborhoods, and interest groups submit ideas for collective consumption projects. Workers serving on the CCFB refine these options into coherent possibilities whose effects can be compared. Their workplaces are structured so that CCFB workers have no economic vested interests channeling their work, and in any event, final collective consumption is debated by everyone who wishes to participate and final decisions are made by democratic procedures sensitive to the different effects decisions may have on different constituencies. But what about individual consumption in capitalism and in a parecon?

ggHow about individual consumption  – in capitalism?

In capitalism, shopping is the quintessential activity. “Live to shop.” “Shop ‘til you drop.” But in capitalism when we consume we know little about what others must do to produce what we consume. Even if we wanted to do so, we have limited ability to temper our requests out of concern for producers. We can only respect the limits of what is available, our personal budget, and our own desires.

But what determines availability in capitalism? The aims and motives of owners, a fact which significantly restricts consumer options. And what tells us what the market offers? Packaging, advertising, and word of mouth, none of which is entirely trust- worthy. And what determines our budget? Wages, income, and other forms of grossly unequal wealth. And what additional pressures influence us to buy more of this or that? The norms of gender, class, and culturally circumscribed behavior, the requirements of work, the pressures of seeking status through consumption, and, in the absence of viable social alternatives, the need to find almost all enjoyment from private commodities.

The absurdity of consumption under capitalism is difficult for those of us living inside the system to recognize. In The Dispossessed (Avon, 1974), science-fiction writer Ursula LeGuin has a character named Shevek who comes to earth from a moon habitat devoid of consumerism to visit a capitalist shopping mall. His reaction is as follows:

Saemtenevia Prospect was two miles long, and it was a solid mass of things to buy, things for sale. Coats, dresses, gowns, robes, trousers, breeches, shirts, umbrellas, clothes to wear while sleeping, while swimming, while playing games, while at an afternoon party, while at an evening party, while at a party in the country, while traveling, while at the theater, while riding horses, gardening, receiving guests, boating, dining, hunting— all different, all in hundreds of different cuts, styles, colors, textures, materials. Perfumes, clocks, lamps, statues, cosmetics, candles, pictures, cameras, hassocks, jewels, carpets: toothpicks, calendars, a baby’s teething rattle of platinum with a handle of rock crystal, an electrical machine to sharpen pencils, a wristwatch with diamond numerals, figurines and souvenirs and kickshaws and mementos and gewgaws and bric-a-brac, everything either useless to begin with or ornamented so as to disguise its use; acres of luxuries, acres of excrement. … But to Shevek the strangest thing about the nightmare street was that none of the millions of things for sale were made there. They were only sold there. Where were the workmen, the miners, the weavers, the chemists, the carvers, the dyers, the designers, the machinists …? Out of sight, somewhere else. Behind walls. All the people in all the shops were either buyers or sellers. They had no relation to the things but that of possessions. How was he to know what a goods’ production entailed? How could they expect him to decide if he wanted something? The whole experience was totally bewildering.

Is the participatory alternative really better? 

Citizens in MLK county have a wide variety of living arrangements. Some live alone, some in couples, some with a partner and children, some in communes. Some live with a few friends and others live in “co-housing communities” where many dwellings band together as a larger whole to collectively share various resources and responsibilities. All these different kinds of living units and many others, no doubt, are part of neighborhood consumption councils.

As one of the more collective forms of living group, what might a co-housing community be like? The hypothetical Emma Goldman community (EG) might have 67 members, of whom 35 range from a few months to 17 years old. Of the 32 “adults,” 24 are “coupled” and eight “uncoupled.” Eight of the children have biological parents living as a couple in the complex. Another 12 have both biological parents living in the complex but not “coupled.” Nine of the remaining 15 children have one biological parent with them and the other either deceased or living elsewhere. Four children have biological parents who live elsewhere, but none in the complex.

EG has households of various types. A quarter of the couples are gay and many people live in extended families. The complex has a children’s section and an adult section so that children and adults can enjoy privacy from one another. The community’s households all have pleasant individual living quarters and adequate kitchen facilities, but EG also has a collective dining hall, collective sports equipment, a large library and entertainment center, a collective laundry room, and a well-outfitted computer center.

The community meets regularly to adopt and update consumption plans, and to coordinate schedules for day care, shopping, and other tasks where people can benefit from economies of scale. Clearly, the advantages of the co-housing community lie in this collectivizing feature—the sharing of tasks and responsibilities, the ready availability of assistance, baby sitters, friends, and project partners, and the benefits of not wasting personal consumption allowances on goods that can be enjoyed much more cheaply, efficiently, and ecologically when shared collectively.

So what is the situation of the individual consumer? First, he or she considers individual consumption in light of already determined collective plans for the county, neighborhood, and co-housing community, since these collective decisions may greatly affect needs for private consumption. Of course, carefully planned collective consumption does not relegate private consumption to the ashcan of history. There is plenty left to decide personally, and we must ask how this differs from consumption under capitalism.

Lydia belongs to the EG community. She likes it because its membership (which changes as some people leave and others are accepted by a vote of the whole complex) is in tune with her own tastes. As with most communities, there is no smoking. People of diverse ages, sexual preferences, and cultural backgrounds are included. Most of the members of EG are into theatre, film, music, or writing. Their collective consumption decisions are made accordingly, so EG has less athletic equipment, science labs, and crafts rooms than co-housing communities which feature those pursuits, but enjoys a very nice theatre, above-average sound systems, photo labs, and well-equipped music rooms.

Lydia determines her personal consumption needs by taking collective requests into account. She also considers the implications of her requests for workers with the aid of information generated by parecon allocation procedures. Beyond being able to consciously affect and take account of collective decisions, Lydia is also privy to the general character of her community mates’ anonymous private consumption choices because she is allowed to question those that seem dangerous or otherwise antisocial at planning sessions whenever it is evident that someone has proposed to consume more than a fair allotment or whenever it is clear that someone’s consumption request is of such a character that Lydia (or anyone else) feels that it is potentially harmful either to the consumer or to the co-housing community as a whole. Of course, the same holds for Lydia’s requests, which are also put into the public hopper, though no one knows who in particular is requesting what because in Lydia’s council it is agreed that unless absolutely necessary, consumption requests are anonymous.

The fact that Lydia has to propose her consumption yearly doesn’t mean she cannot change her requests when the need arises. Participatory consumption welcomes regular updates of plans. Yet Lydia must get her food, furniture, clothes, and other goods somewhere. Primarily, she will get it at local outlets in her neighborhood although she can also make purchases at outlets elsewhere should she want to. She has a kind of credit card, that incorporates her plan, budget, and choices, and allows regular updating in light of changes in her preferences and patterns.

Can we get back to the underlying aspect – the planning, please…to clarify that a little bit here?

Assume that all higher-level consumer federations have already arrived at collective consumption plan. Let’s follow the consumer calculations of two residents of MLK county, Arundhati and Tariq.

Consumption planning begins with collective consumption projects, starting at the highest level and working down, and culminating in a vote on an entire collective consumption package. We look in on this process at the point where individuals present requests for county-level collective and individual consumption.

Of course, all of last year’s data is available and MLK residents pay particular attention to records of their requests and final plans from last year, to their county’s status as a borrower or creditor, to IFB projections for this year’s average consumption, and to the county consumption facilitation board’s summary of collective consumption projects members have suggested.

The CCFB proposes various options. But consumers are not hit suddenly with a menu of collective consumption options they know nothing about, have not discussed, and have no opportunity to alter. On the contrary, consumers are periodically informed regarding the formation of these proposals and can intervene at any time with comments, suggestions, and alternate proposals of their own.

Afer having spent time evaluating the various CCFB proposals, each living unit discusses them, suggests alterations, and registers preferences. Individuals weigh the benefits of proposed collective consumption requests against their estimated social costs and estimates of county consumption within their region. People also consider the implications for individual consumption of collective consumption for which they will be “charged” their fair share.

For example, Arundhati who lives with her husband and their three children as members of EG co-housing community, considers how options vary in terms of their social costs and benefits. She considers how much a new county cultural center would reduce the need for personal cultural products, what strains it would place on workers, and how much it would diminish each county resident’s personal consumption budget.

Of course a particularly large county collective consumption request need not reduce individual consumption budgets drastically in the same period. The “debt to society” can be spread over time through county borrowing and saving. This is not only reasonable but essential if any large-scale collective consumption is to occur. In any event, Arundhati and others deal with these issues with the aid of the information made available by the CFBs and computers that quickly and conveniently provide information on the implications for average consumption bundles and make comparisons with other units and past plans. Consumers manipulate software that helps them evaluate the implications of alternative collective con- sumption choices. For example, Arundhati can see data describing how a new community athletics center would reduce what is available for individual consumption but permit greater access to exercise equipment, basketball and volleyball courts, pools, etc., for herself, her husband, and her children.

After receiving feedback from all the households that make up the county council, the CCFB modifies its list of proposed collective consumption projects and resubmits it for households to consider. After discussion, each household ranks the revised proposals, including explanations for its preferences. At this point, the CCFB proposes four possible collective consumption agendas, explaining the implications of each for overall plan possibilities.

Households, co-housing communities, and other living units then vote on the four collective consumption bundles, dropping the least popular with each vote until one remains. This voting is “live”— living units and representatives are linked by computer and TV hook-ups so that votes can be inclusive and tabulated immediately. In this example, as in most other voting procedures, representative structures facilitate making amendments to incorporate as many viewpoints as possible. Then all citizens can vote on the amendments because of the speed with which votes can be tallied.

The above is but one possibility. But there is no one right way to undertake collective consumption. Different counties would employ different procedures. Guidelines for transparency, participation, self-management, and proper valuation, are the universals.

Once MLK and other counties have settled on their collective consumption requests, these can be massaged in light of one another and summed into state and national collective consumption requests. Rather then pursue that in detail, next we describe how neighborhood and personal consumption requests can be developed.

But how about personal consumption proposals 

Since neighborhood collective consumption mirrors the logic of county collective consumption, we move to personal consumption requests. To develop a personal consumption plan, Tariq consults the lFB’s estimates of indicative prices, assessments for collective consumption for members of his neighborhood, and average personal consumption estimates, and settles on a “borrower/loaner” status. To simplify, similar products of comparable quality are grouped together so Tariq needs to express preferences for socks, but not for colors or type of socks; for soda, books, and bicycles, but not for flavors, titles, or styles of each. Statistical studies enable facilitation boards to break down total requests for generic types of goods by the percent of people who will want different types of records, soda, or bicycles. There are no competing companies producing products, only “product industries” creating diverse styles and qualities of goods for different purposes, all with the intention that everyone get what is best meets their needs.

Tariq has under-consumed relative to his allowance in the past two years and has decided to even up the balance a bit this year. On the other hand, his county, MLK, has requested a higher than average county collective consumption bundle, some of which is being borrowed, but some of which will be “paid for” now by reducing the consumption of MLK residents this year. Tariq knows there is no point being too modest in his initial proposal—the iteration process will compel him to lower his final request as necessary. But he doesn’t want to make requests that are outrageously immodest, either, since that would only lengthen the bargaining process and do nothing to increase his final consumption.

Tariq knows his selections have social implications. It is not that his choice of a particular kind of food implies that everyone else should get the same amount of that product. People have different needs and tastes. But the total of Tariq’s consumption calculated according to the IFB-generated indicative prices and adjusted for MLK’s above-average collective consumption request and his individual status as a borrower against past savings implicitly expresses what he thinks is a reasonable average consumption bundle for all members of society. It would be pointless for Tariq to suggest a value too far in excess of what the IFB has anticipated, unless he thinks the IFB has made a gross underestimation.

So Tariq takes his turn at a computer terminal to try out various combinations of different goods, checking on the total value of his proposed bundle. The computer contains anticipated averages, indicative prices, and so on, as well as qualitative descriptions of the products (which he can also see at outlets) and of the work that goes into their creation. The information helps Tariq assess whether rote or dangerous methods are employed to produce the goods he wants.

Tariq knows that if he requests a lot of goods that require work at below-average job complexes, he is implicitly changing the societal average work complex and his own labor requirements. Self- interest and collective solidarity argue against such a request unless he thinks the benefits of consuming the good in question are worth the extra drudgery. In any event, getting detailed information about production relations only requires a few minutes.

As Tariq completes his first proposal, so do other consumers, and all are submitted to the societal planning data bank where they are collected and processed by IFBs. New summaries are presented including updated projections of anticipated indicative prices, average consumption, and the current status of each good, all to be discussed next chapter.

Next Entry: Producer’s Role


All the latest from Z, directly to your inbox.

Institute for Social and Cultural Communications, Inc. is a 501(c)3 non-profit.

Our EIN# is #22-2959506. Your donation is tax-deductible to the extent allowable by law.

We do not accept funding from advertising or corporate sponsors.  We rely on donors like you to do our work.

ZNetwork: Left News, Analysis, Vision & Strategy


All the latest from Z, directly to your inbox.