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International Relations Involving a Participatory Society

Matt Grind

From ZNet

This essay seeks to explore the issues that would face a participatory democratic society when relating to other countries. It is assumed that some of the other countries the participatory society deals with are not participatory societies. It is assumed that there could exist a country whose economy was governed by participatory democratic structures as envisioned by Hahnel and Albert in their vision of "Participatory Economics" (parecon). Also, it is assumed that this country has a "Participatory Polity" (parpolity) as envisioned by Stephen Shalom. There would be other important characteristics of this society, dealing with such issues as kinship, culture, and religion, but they will not be specified here.

The purpose of this essay is not to provide vision about how a participatory society should manage its international affairs. Rather, I am seeking to address the likely scenarios a participatory nation will face, and how it will likely deal with them, given my understanding of participatory structures and institutions. Some questions along this line are: With what structures would a participatory society manage its relations with other countries? How would the institutions of a participatory society motivate it to help (or hinder) the development of other countries? Would it have an army? Would it have conscription? Would it be motivated to commit an aggressive war to conquer other nations? Would be motivated to never go to war? How would it negotiate economic deals with capitalist countries? Would it deal with capitalist countries? Would it try to "export revolution" (encourage – or force – other countries to adopt its institutions and systems)? How would foreign policy be decided? Would it have ambassadors? How would immigration be handled? How would its unique monetary system coexist with international currencies?

There are many questions to answer, and I honestly do not know how to answer them all. By interpreting the writings of parpolity and parecon, I will attempt to address some major issues.

As a bit of a preamble, I would first like to establish a basic principle of a participatory society, namely that the policy of the participatory nation, based on the wishes of the majority of its citizens, is most often fair and reasonable. I will use this idea throughout the essay. Since we are dealing with an imagined participatory society, where the opinions and beliefs of the majority of the population should reflect (for the most part) the foreign policy of the nation, it seems reasonable to think that the foreign policy will be fair minded. Evidence for this is given in polls of ordinary citizens conducted in the modern age. Polls show that most Americans think resorting to military force to promote democracy is wrong[4], that the Kyoto protocols on the environment should be honored[5], etc. despite what their government actually does regarding these issues. There are numerous examples of the majority of people in a democratic society (let us call representative democracies "democratic" even though it is arguable that there is very little real democracy in such societies) believing in fairly socialist values, like Medicare[7], universal education, universal suffrage, etc. This is often contrary to policy delivered by elected representatives. There are exceptions of course, Americans appear to be divided on the issue of socialized medicine[8]. One wonders what the result would be if the US media was not corporate owned.

However, it is possible for the majority to be irrational and nasty, for example, consider witch burning and slavery. It is probable that instances of the "tyranny of the majority" may crop up in a participatory society. Fortunately there are proposed methods for dealing with this, discussed below. Hopefully such instances where the majority of citizens want unethical things to happen to a subgroup or foreign group of people would be rare. It is of course, impossible to predict, but since there would be much debate in this society, free and non corporate media, and people would often be considering the opinions of others, one would hope and expect that the majority of people in a participatory society would be convinced by the voices of others to support ideas that are fair minded and reasonable.

I will now briefly summarize the economic system of parecon and the political system of parpolity. For more background, please see the writings of Robin Hahnel and Michael Albert on participatory economics, also see Stephen Shalom on "parpolity." People already familiar with these proposed systems are invited to skip the next bit.

Participatory Economics[1] seeks to set up an entirely different economic system by fundamentally changing work life, and how goods and services are allocated (no markets and no central planning). By law, productive property would be owned by all citizens, no private ownership of factories of farms etc. would be allowed. Work life would be democratic, each worker would be able to vote on issues in the workplace in proportion to how much the issue effects them. Further, each worker would have a "balanced job complex." This means that each worker has a mix of tasks, some empowering, and some rote and perhaps unpleasant. Through sharing both the empowering and unempowering work, one class is established, and the economy is more fair. For instance someone might be an airplane pilot (empowering) some of the time, and a baggage handler at the airport for the rest of their work week. Surgeons would spend some of their time sweeping floors or sorting mail. Also, if it is necessary for someone to be in charge in the workplace, then this job is rotated. For instance, if you are in charge of baggage handling at the airport, then on some other day, you are one of the baggage handlers. Finally, in a parecon one gets paid according to how much effort and sacrifice one does at work. If you work longer hours, or at a hard job, you get paid more. Balanced job complexes should have roughly the same effort and sacrifice.

Money in a participatory society is also different. A worker in a parecon gets "credits", a sort of record of how much they work. They can then use these credits to buy goods and services, but when they buy things, some of their credits disappear. They do not go into a till or a bank, they are gone. To get more, one must work more. Credits are not transferable to other people. I could not give you any of my credits no matter what you might give me. There are no banks, no stock market, and no interest rates. Investment still happens, but differently. If the parecon nation wants to invest in infrastructure, everything else gets more expensive, but no loans are given.

Allocation in a participatory society would also be very different from today. Each year, all citizens would engage in a participatory planning procedure, the goal of which would be to set prices for all goods and services for one year. At the beginning of the procedure, consumers would enter proposals on what they plan to consume for the coming year on an individual, neighborhood, city wide, provincial, and country wide basis. For instance, an individual might order a new bicycle and stereo for the new year, and a city might order a sewer system upgrade. Proposals involving more than one person would be accomplished by any citizen submitting a proposal to a facilitation board, which would be a service to help develop the proposal for approval by the rest of the population. The sum of proposals would then be approved by interested people in that region, then submitted during the participatory planning procedure. In a similar way each worker (who would also be a consumer) would propose how much they want to work in the coming year, and at what they want to work. Workplaces would also propose changes to their workplaces, such as upgrades. This proposed supply and demand will be summed up, and factors such as environmental damage involved in producing goods and the toll on workers will be added to the price of a good, making it more or less expensive. This generates prices to be reviewed for all goods and services. Since the prices incorporate information about the impact of the goods on society, it is said that the prices reflect the "social opportunity cost". After reviewing the prices, people then resubmit proposals, as prices might not be what they expected. This process is repeated several times, and less deviation is allowed each time, whittling down the proposals into something beneficial to all. After this, prices are set for a year. Note that though this might seem like a demanding process for the population, there are mechanisms to make it easy on consumers, such as getting time off work to do it.

Parecon describes how economic life would work, but this leaves out the creation and enforcement of laws. This is a job for a parpolity[2]. To make laws, Shalom proposes that a nested council structure be created. Each person would belong to a council of 25 to 50 other citizens. Each council would elect a representative to go to the next level council, which would then represent 625 to 2500 people, and each of these would send representatives to the next level, and so on. At five or six levels, you can represent billions of people. Each council would be deliberative, that is, capable of making independent decisions for the sum total of its constituents. Laws passed could involve new work safety standards, outlawing practices that are very harmful to the environment, etc. However, the decisions of each higher level council would be easily challengeable by a referendum. Also, the lower level councils would be asked to give general preferences for issues that come up, leaving the details to be worked out by the appropriate council. For instance people could vote that they are generally in favor of allowing stem cell research, with provisions like no babies are to be brought to maturity just to get their stem cells, but leave the exact details to a higher level council. People interested in the details could follow the deliberations of the higher level councils and comment on them as well, and perhaps petition for a general vote if many observers are unsatisfied.

Courts in parpolity would not be changed a great deal, however, there might be more juries. Presumably police would still be needed, as this is a skilled profession, and police would work in a balanced job complex. Prisons might be needed as well for seriously violent people. Hopefully the need for police and prisons would be much diminished, and prisons would focus on reform and creative ways to help people who have trouble living in a society. Courts would also be used to check tyranny of the majority. If one group tries to oppress a smaller group through voting some legislation, courts would be used to block these violations of the constitution. Courts can also assist on ruling which group of people gets to vote on what issue. It is assumed here that there would be a constitution, though Shalom has not made this explicit, since it seems to be the only way to aid court rulings. Countries like the UK, who have no constitution, rely on precedents to aid court rulings. Since there would be no precedents for many of the actions of a participatory society, it would seem a constitution is in order.

Now that each system is summarized, let us move on to international relations.

1.0 Economic Relations Between Countries

Fortunately, Robin Hahnel has recently clarified how economic relations would work both between parecon countries and also parecon and non-parecon countries in his recent book "Economic Justice and Democracy"[3]. Previous to this, how this might work was something of a mystery.

1.1 Economic Relations Between Participatory Societies:

For relations between two parecon countries, it is first important to understand a few points about parecon. In a parecon, every able worker has a balanced job complex.

In implementing the balanced job complex, though, it is proposed that not every worker work at the same place for their entire job complex. Some workers could perhaps perform their tasks all under one roof, but others will have to spend some part of their work in one place (say a coal mine) and another part somewhere else (such as a research institution). In this way, jobs are balanced amongst workplaces.

Another point to understand is that there is freedom of movement anywhere in a parecon. If you want to live somewhere within the parecon, you may live there (as long the work you can do is needed, and you can get to your workplace). If some parts of a country are much more desirable to live in, then many people will want to live there. If too many people want to live there then the resources of that region are strained, and the environment is strained.

What can be done to mitigate the undesirable (and unstoppable) effects of too much migration to more desirable parts of the country? The solution is to not develop one part of the county beyond other parts, so that each part is as desirable to live in as possible. To put it another way, if two countries go parecon at the same time, and one is less technologically advanced than another, the first priority of the more advanced former nation (now a part of a larger nation) is to help develop the less advanced region. Otherwise, too many people will move to the more advanced region and overwhelm it. Also, because jobs would be balanced across workplaces, then people from the more advanced areas of the country would be motivated to improve the less advanced regions, else they will have to work in worse conditions. The interesting (and laudable) thing is that the parecon nation is seriously motivated to aid underdeveloped regions, otherwise its own progress is hindered.

Two parecon countries geographically adjacent to each other would most likely become one country economically. The more developed country would be obligated to help the less developed country until they are on equal terms, as above. Councils would order projects that would affect both countries, effectively becoming a single entity, as there should be unrestricted trade between each. However, the farther apart each country is, the higher the price of goods would be if the good would have to be shipped all the way from one end of the country to another. Two parecon countries separated by water would presumably be able to order goods freely from each other with no restrictions, but transportation costs would factor in by raising the social opportunity cost of each item.

It is of course possible that many regions in a parecon country could be culturally and politically distinct, and might be named differently and so on. However, if both are parecon, there is no reason to assume that these differences would impede the free flow of goods between each other, and that there would be any trade restrictions. In fact any restrictions would be detrimental to the economy of each, as it would seem to hurt efficiency, and decrease the diversity of goods, and would make workers in each country work harder and longer hours. If consumer councils cannot order goods and services from other regions just because of cultural differences, then there is an unfortunate dispute between the two regions, something for the polity to resolve. In any case, restricting trade between two parecon countries would be in the economic interest of neither.

1.2 Economic Relations between Participatory Societies and non-Participatory societies (capitalist or communist):

Leaving aside for the moment that a participatory society would likely face hostility from non-participatory societies, there is a possibility that a "capitalist" or "communist" countries might wish to have economic relations with a participatory country. Robin Hahnel has also recently proposed how this might work as well.

Hahnel states that if a parecon country can deal with a more advanced economy (technologically speaking presumably) then it is fine to get the best deal it can get. The parecon country should sue for the most "efficiency gains" it can get, since nobody will be worse off in either country.

In physics, more efficiency means that the work or energy you get out of a device is greatest compared to how much energy or work was put into a device. A car is not very efficient if much of the energy produced by the engine goes into making heat, (typically only 10% goes into moving the car). In an economy, transposing this concept would define an efficiency gain as putting the least amount of labor and resources into producing a good for the greatest amount of the good produced and the greatest social benefits as well (including worker satisfaction, not impacting the environment etc.). If you can produce enough toothbrushes for all with 10 people in a small factory, then you shouldn’t use 100 people and vast resources to do it. Also, if infrastructure is already existing to produce toothbrushes, then it is inefficient to make more infrastructure unless it will reduce use of resources and labor in the future, and maybe have social benefits.

Therefore if a parecon country can get goods with less investment of labor and resources from the more developed country, then it should do so. Nobody gets hurt in either country. Also, if the parecon country can get resources to build a more efficient factory or get better job training from the advanced country, it should do so. And so on.

If however, a parecon is dealing with a less advanced country, the parecon country is obliged to get less than 50% of the efficiency gains of the trade deal. In this way the less advanced economy gets most of the benefits, but not all. The parecon country gets some efficiency gains as well, but it is morally obliged to try to benefit the less advanced economy more than itself. The parecon country does not lose anything, but it does not gain as much as it could.

Why be so nice? Hahnel proposes that to do otherwise would violate the principles of a parecon ([3], p. 212-213) It seems true that violating one’s ethical principles would matter to a participatory democratic society, where the fair mindedness of the population would presumably rule, as I have already discussed above.

Further, this issue relates to immigration. A principle in parecon appears to be that too much immigration is held to be "bad" for a region. Since immigration rights are an important activist topic today, it is important to clarify that advocates for a participatory society are not anti-immigration. Rather just the opposite, "freedom of association" is a fundamental right in a parecon or parpolity, and such a society could not work without it. It seems hard to have a participatory democracy without people being free to live where they want and associate with whom they want within the country.

If the principle of "freedom of association" is extended, it would imply that the international border of a participatory society would be open both ways, anyone must be free to enter, and anyone must be free to leave. Having an open border might of course lead to the problem of too many people coming into the country.

Might this motivate the parecon country to restrict immigration? If there is no internal pressure for a participatory society not to put restrictions on immigration, and the external pressures can presumably be ignored, then restrictions might very well happen. At this point, I invoke the principle (above) that the majority of citizens in a participatory society are fair minded. What would a fair minded person do? One would think that having open borders (as much as possible) is the fair thing to do. You must allow refugees into the country, it is simply the fair thing to do. It is beneficial to allow skilled workers to immigrate as is done in many "first world" countries. What about people wanting to enter the country who might not have special skills? The fair thing seems to be to let them in as well. Presumably a constitution for a participatory society would have freedom of association written into it. Thus the court system of the participatory society would uphold the constitution and keep the border open, unless the situation is very dire. Further, the parecon nation can deal with immigration issues by improving the lot of other nations it trades with. If you make life better for people in other countries, then they have less reason to

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