My luck would have me born in Russia in what they call ‘roaring 90s’ (a period of time defined by high criminality and capital accumulation and, consequently, criminal dispossession) in quite poor circumstances, yet to people who did their best to shield me from the worst effects of poverty. My parents managed to fuel my curiosity for knowledge and even teach me English to some degree.
My earliest memory that might be called politically significant is: when I was a child — I don’t even remember how young exactly — there was a lot of talk on TV about poverty and unemployment (often being spoken about as ‘people having no work’). So, once I asked my father: “Why is ‘there’s no work’ a bad thing? Doesn’t that mean that all that has to be done is done and there’s no need to do more?” And my father said: “It’s bad because people don’t work and don’t get money”. I asked: “Then why don’t they print enough money and hand it out, so everyone has enough?”. “Because then money would be less valuable, and you wouldn’t be able to buy as much”, he said. That made some sense, so I asked no further questions then.
Of course, he wouldn’t tell a child that money is a fiction rather than some limited resource, or that in fact they could provide everyone with a job and give enough for everyone but decided not to, or that he lived his young years through a different system where unemployment and inflation were practically non-existent.
Still, I believe this simple line of questions, born out of a child’s sheer curiosity, is an indication there is something fundamentally wrong with an economic system that has unemployment and constant inflation as a norm.
Of course later, probably like most kids, I rarely spent time thinking about questions of political economy, although the economics course at school felt much less robust than any other one (topped only by the “fundamentals of Orthodox Christian culture” course which almost guarantees to make one a non-believer).
It is tempting to think that my journey to participatory economics was gradual and organic, although it was really punctuated by a great amount of luck.
In my early twenties, I stumbled upon an audiobook called Anarchy by Peter Kropotkin, which is a collection of his major works that among others included Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.
The narrator does an amazing job, as he sounds just as one might imagine Russian-speaking people of the late 19th century born in the upper-class sounded like, so after fifteen minutes of listening you forget it’s a recording and feel as if Kropotkin himself is telling you his story. He tells you about his journeys through Siberia and how he observed mutual aid in non-human animals. He presents the best-known, at the time, version of human history and political thoughts and movements, dispelling the same arguments which are often made by elites and conservatives. Whenever he speaks about his time you’re struck with how little things have changed in these 100+ years in terms of social relations: the same relations between owners and workers, between buyers and sellers, between bosses and subordinates. Politicians are the same lying bastards; legal fictions are weaponized against the poor; crises of overproduction, when the surplus product is destroyed rather than distributed, co-exist with massive poverty and even starvation. He identifies root causes of all the major vile things humanity concerns itself with: these turn out to be statism and capitalism, which together he sometimes describes as authoritarianism.
Not only do some ideas make you doubt many things your teachers taught you, but also make you reconsider how you view things. One of Kropotkin’s for me was the idea of commons: that wealth, technology and knowledge of humanity is a legacy of countless generations of people, our common legacy, and should belong to everyone, and each product — even the tiniest one, if you really think about it — is a result of this collective history of effort that connects pretty much everyone on Earth.
Since listening to Anarchy, I became quite confident in the idea that power corrupts. That is, I felt that nothing short of restructuring the whole society would suffice for people’s liberation, as political leaders, no matter how well-intentioned from the outset, would quickly be corrupted by power, especially in a setting when popular accountability is lacking. Going forward for me, more and more evidence appeared that prominent opposition forces to the current administration are not quite in opposition to it, but rather its rivals for places of power.
So, I might then as well call myself a libertarian socialist. Turned out there are many libertarian socialist schools of thought: communist, syndicalist, mutualist, individualist, feminist, environmentalist, communalist. My education in those topics proceeded mostly in English. The discussions of subscribers to the aforementioned schools of thought were interesting to read, as well as learning the perspectives they brought to the table.
Years later I encountered solarpunk, a subgenre of literature and art that envisions a brighter future where people make use of modern technology yet live in harmony with nature, and hierarchies are flattened.
Here it might be said that I encountered another instance of luck. Sometime in 2021 in I watched a recording of a live streamed debate between Richard Wolff and streamer Destiny hosted by Lance from Serfs TV. The next playback suggestion was a similar video debate titled “Socialism vs Capitalism”, but this time with Michael Albert.
Almost at the beginning Michael Albert notes that to demand of an economy only ‘somewhat decent allocation’ is really too low of a bar. Why can’t we demand solidarity, self-management and more? And, indeed, why can’t we?
The notion that we can demand of an economic system itself to provide and facilitate values like solidarity, diversity, self-management and equity was one other really powerful idea to me. So, then I watched a Youtube review of the book Parecon: Life After Capitalism by Radical Reviewer, and started to listen to the RevolutionZ podcast. After a couple of months of listening, I felt that participatory theory embodies the most ‘real-life’ version of aspirations that animate people’s desire for social liberation. At the same time, learning about them let me feel the same kind of hope for a brighter future, as well-done pieces of solarpunk literature and art let me feel.
Thereafter, I had a chance to read Michael Albert’s latest book No Bosses, and participate in a School for Social and Cultural Change course with the same title about post-capitalist vision, both which gave me a great deal of insight. I’ve been learning about participatory theory and trying to advocate it in political discussions ever since.
What really makes participatory economics stand out, I would argue, is that it dissipates both scientism and the air of mystery around the sphere of economics. You can present it in a very accessible way because its substance is relatable to anyone who has an idea of what it means to work at an enterprise.
One other outstanding feature is the systemic promotion of diversity of options as a value: it’s a quite flexible system that doesn’t wish to impose some kind of Universal Truth upon everyone, but instead admits that people in society are people whose tastes and practical wisdom would find different paths for different places and situations.
From Russia with vision #2: presenting the vision
I will now try to present a vision of participatory economy as I typically do to someone who brings up a political topic in a friendly conversation. Of course, which aspects I bring up first and in what order depends on what things were said earlier and my guess about listeners’ prior knowledge. Generally, my presentations go along the following lines.
Most ills of the world can be traced to the fact that those who are affected by important decisions have no or little say in those decisions, and those who make the decisions are unaffected by them. Imagine that instead — a person’s say over a decision was proportionate to how much that person is affected by it (a norm which can be called self-management).
Try to imagine such a norm even partly implemented right now. Imagine that those who wage wars have to man the first troop train with themselves to go to the frontline and fight. That those who refuse to raise minimum wage and institute rent controls have to live on minimum wage and nothing else and yet pay full rent. That those who gut public school funding must have their children taught at the least-funded public schools. Wouldn’t that be nice? Maybe then they would reason less like demons and more like caring neighbours. (One can quickly see how self-management and solidarity go hand in hand).
But of course, self-management requires much more than that, since large-scale things like the above examples, and other day-to-day things mostly affect groups of ordinary people, that means those groups of people must have the most say over them. In regard to the economy, that means that workers must have the most say over their work lives, neighbours — over neighbourhood issues, and so on. That means people must have places and relations which facilitate this kind of collective decision-making. Let’s start with relations.
This can be brought up right away if my interlocutor complains about inadequate wages. I remark that now, in capitalism, people get income for property ownership and for how much they can demand. Then I simply say that instead of that — everyone who can work must be given a fair job and be paid in proportion to how long they work, how much effort they expend for the work, and how onerous their working conditions are — and, I add, people who cannot work or on retirement must receive an average pay. Which is usually found as a totally fair norm for remuneration.
It seems that people find it intuitive what a “fair job for everyone” implies. Once I even met the phrase “socially valued labour” from my interlocutor without my prompt.
Commons and balanced job complexes
Of course, the part above immediately throws into question the idea of private ownership of productive assets. And, following Kropotkin’s thought, then I might add that our common economic legacy must benefit everyone (rather than a few at the top) and no one can claim that it is theirs.
More often, however, I bring up the juiciest and most controversial part: we can redefine our jobs in such a way, so there wouldn’t be a need for managers and higher-ups. We can abolish the discrepancies between mental and physical labour, or more importantly, we can abolish job-related imbalances of power. We do so by equitably redistributing tasks that give knowledge, social skills, confidence, and information between everyone in a workplace (and, as much as possible, between workplaces and industries). We want to ensure that each job in the economy is composed of a complex of tasks that would develop a person’s potential — especially with regard to participation in self-management — equally well to any other job and be equal to any other job in quality of life (that is, for division of labour in a society we want to institute balanced job complexes). We want everyone to be capable of forming an informed opinion and to be able to express it, discuss it and act on it equally well to everyone else.
This way, instead of enterprises being run from above, we can run them collectively, with everyone being capable of participating in self-managed decision-making.
Workers’ and consumers’ councils
In a household, when we want to purchase something expensive, or decide to move, or generally face a decision that affects the whole family, we hold a family council to discuss the issue at hand. In a similar way, workers can set up workers’ councils to handle workplace affairs and manage production, and neighbours can set up neighbourhood consumers’ councils where they can decide on items of collective consumption and agendas that have to do with the neighbourhood — maybe they’d want to repair the road, renovate the apartment block, and so on.
Note that to my older listeners I usually don’t have to explain this part in great detail, as they know what workers’ and consumers’ councils are from past experience. However, one thing I like to add right away is that those councils can serve not only as economic bodies but as political bodies as well. A neighbourhood council could decide norms and policies related to the neighbourhood, and for influencing wider norms and policies they could send a recallable delegate to, say, a town council that is formed by delegates from each neighbourhood council of said town, and similarly, from each town council, when needed, a delegate can be sent to the regional council, and so on upwards, all maintaining self-management and ensuring the structure of political decision-making is bottom-up. Both political and economic structures serve the interests of all people, not of some privileged group at the top.
Common objections so far
The most common objection is “but you have to have higher-ups, or everything would fall into disarray”. Well, this one may actually dispel itself down the line of normal conversations between working people. As the objector themself might readily admit, often bosses are no better than power-drunk vampires that make everyone around miserable. As much as usually it’s pretty easy to demonstrate the perpetuating instances where power corrupts, as well as instances where work continues just fine (and everyone is happy) when managers take a leave, it would be advisable to ask, “But why should anyone dictate for others? Shouldn’t we give a say to those who are affected? We can consider advice from experts when needed, sure, but having received expert opinions we are ready to express our own preferences, aren’t we?”
Of course, sometimes the point about balanced jobs has to be argued over practices of education and training: higher education is often seen as a kind of hurdle to overcome to get more lucrative and empowering positions, not as something that can and should be universally accessible and develop people intellectually, spiritually and socially to the fullest extent.
One other objection is this: okay, this self-management idea sounds good, but there will always be some bastard who ruins it for everyone — no reason, no argumentation, just sheer stubbornness and resistance for the sake of it — so you won’t do much with that. Well, I say, this inflated individualism is a phenomenon of the current stratified society: of one in which people are so used to getting scammed and screwed over — that they don’t believe that society at large has their best interests at heart, so in public interactions they would cling to whatever they are used to rather than trying anything new. But then I ask to notice that self-management requires that not only do people participate in making decisions — but they must also participate in deliberating and arriving at how best to achieve self-management, or the “rules of the game” for each type of decision: whether they use majority rule, consensus, some percent of total number of households, or whatever best approximates the “having say to the degree of being affected” norm. Once the approach is discussed and accepted with everyone’s participation, it would be really hard to poison the decision-making for others, or so I argue.
At this point, especially if I’m talking to someone older, I might simply say that planning is superior to market allocation, and we can get rid of perverse incentives of planning being centralised, and decentralise it instead. We have knowledge, and methods and fast computers so that the public can just as well take allocation in their hands, and my interlocutor takes me at my word.
A longer answer would be that market failures are plenty and people encounter them every day. Markets misprice things. They encourage fleecing rather than solidarity and empathy. They push the involved parties to disregard anything outside profitability and control — be it care about nature, or people’s health, or privacy, or even satisfaction. Central planning of the economy does better, but not much better. It too sometimes disregards or responds extremely slowly to the people’s needs and preferences. It aggrandises central planners and managerial staff at local workplaces.
Instead, a decentralised participatory mode of planning can be instituted, where people individually, and workers’ and consumers’ councils collectively, adjust their production and consumption proposals during several rounds of information exchange. These negotiations can be facilitated by agencies called facilitation boards, and can also be influenced by the input from councils of parties that are affected by economic activities.
Note that diversity (together with solidarity, self-management and equity) is another core value of participatory theory. How to precisely balance jobs in given situations, how comprehensive information exchange during planning should be, how detailed the effort and sacrifice metric is kept tracked (let alone vast multitudes of people’s activities, tastes, and intellectual and spiritual preferences) are all subject to diversity.
Note that fraudulent behaviour under participatory economy is automatically discouraged, not only because extra income can’t be turned into power and conspicuous consumption would seem odd and even suspicious, but also, and mainly, because the norms of equitable remuneration and benefit/burden distribution ensure that whoever benefits unfairly does so at everyone else’s expense and never really to anyone else’s (and arguably even one’s own) benefit.
The approach to argumentation “from values to institutions” is probably the most robust one, but what I presented is the way it usually comes up organically in the conversations I have with ordinary people. I might go into greater detail, like how budgets for workplaces are allotted, or how living arrangements and property might (or should) be organised, if I had a principled discussion with a theory-versed socialist. But the outline above, it seems to me, conveys to most people that I’m proposing something radically different from the cruel and inhumane political and economic system they are living through now. Even then, I feel that for older people who have experienced alternatives to capitalism, even some of those details would be to a large degree part of common sense.
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