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Reimagining Vision

A Discussion Paper by Mark Evans for Z, PEP and RU

On the 10th October 2022 Michael Albert sent out an email to a group of people who, as he put it, are “already interested in it [participatory economics] or in post capitalist economic vision more broadly”. The email included what he described as “a very succinct description of participatory economics”. Michael finished the introductory email with the following:

“...once any needed changes are incorporated, I would like to submit the piece to appear on RU, PEP, and Z, as well as if we can get others to run it. In essence I am trying to generate a short piece all can agree on. No doubt refinements will be needed.” (Emphasis added).

The email then goes on to present Michael’s latest attempt at galvanising support for participatory economics. In this paper I would like to explore the approach taken by Michael and contrast it with the approach taken by Robin / PEP. For reasons given later, these approaches will be referred to as “minimalist” and “maximalist”, respectively. The differences between these two approaches will be discussed and an important similarity highlighted. The limitation of both these approaches will also be discussed followed by a presentation of an alternative approach to vision.

As already noted, Michael’s email is his latest attempt at galvanising support for participatory economics. His presentation is laced with words such as “essence”, “succinctly” and “summarize” . We may therefore characterise this as the minimalist approach to advocating vision. The thinking behind this approach seems to be that it is much more likely that we will win the large-scale support for participatory economics that we all want if we stick to the basics, what he nowadays refers to as the “scaffold”. His minimalist presentation of the vision for a participatory economics is as follows:

  1. a productive commons of natural, built, and work-force embodied productive assets.

  2. workers and consumers self managing councils and federations of councils.

  3. balanced job complexes constructed to convey to every worker comparable empowerment.

  4. equitable remuneration for how long, how hard, and the onerousness of conditions we endure while we do socially productive work.

  5. and participatory planning in accord with assessments of all personal, social, and environmental implications of production and consumption.

According to this approach, for people to get involved in advocating and organising for a participatory economy, all they have to do is agree with the above five points. We should note, however, that the above five points are not presented by Michael as a finished product. Rather he acknowledges that they are open to refinements and changes. Nevertheless, the idea with this approach does seem to be to arrive at a short list of features that, at some point, we “all can agree on”.

This seems to contrast somewhat with the approach taken by Robin Hahnel / PEP. There the concern seems to be to have a much more comprehensive and rather detailed presentation of participatory economics. The thinking behind this approach seems to be that the more we can answer all possible questions that arise regarding the model the more likely people are to support participatory economics. We may therefore characterise this as the maximalist approach to advocating vision.

By definition, it is impossible to illustrate the maximalist presentation in short form here. However, a visit to the PEP website will suffice to make the point. According to this approach, it seems that for people to get involved in advocating and organising for a participatory economy they not only have to agree with the basics of the vision but also the answers Robin / PEP presents to the numerous (endless?) questions that naturally arise in response to encountering the model.

With that short overview done, I would now like to raise a very basic question: Are either of these approaches to vision strategically realistic? What I mean by this is, do we really believe that at some point in the future the large numbers of people required to make participatory economics even a possibility will all mentally line-up and agree with all of the features of the model? One answer to this questions might be that this is more likely to happen with the minimalist approach. Afterall, the more information available, the more opportunities for disagreement.

This is one very good reason why the minimalist approach makes sense. However, we should keep in mind that agreeing with the vision statements - whether minimalist or maximalist - also requires an agreement with the underlying analysis. To give just one example, to agree with the need for participatory planning assumes an agreement with Michael and Robin’s critique of markets. Strictly speaking, therefore, becoming an advocate of even the minimalist presentation of participatory economics actually requires more than an agreement with Michael’s “scaffold” presentation of the vision. Another important point to keep in mind is that both the minimalist and maximalist presentations are of the same model. So in effect, we are looking at a single model approach to promoting vision.

So, once again we can ask: Is this approach to vision strategically realistic? Do we really believe that there will be large-scale agreement around these ideas? Or is it more likely that this single model approach will result in a small number of like-minded followers, at best, and that these groups will function more like echo chambers than serious political projects with the potential to impact the real world? Furthermore, what are the implications of these questions for participatory economics and vision more generally? Is this the end of participatory economics or is there a more realistic approach that could be adopted?

One option that is available is for us to drop the single model approach presented by Michael and Robin. As we have seen, this is an approach that operates from the assumption that one day large numbers of people will all agree on all aspects of a single presentation of the model. An alternative to this could be that we assume that the way things are much more likely to pan-out will include diverse expressions of what a participatory economy might look like. The problem with this approach, however, is that it is so open ended that the term participatory economics could, over time, come to refer to anything and therefore become meaningless.

This is an understandable concern. So is there another option that addresses all of these concerns? In other words, is there a middle way between the single presentation approach and the completely open approach to vision? And if so, what might that middle way look like?

What if we open up to the possibility of more than one expression of what a participatory economy can be whilst at the same time limiting the possibilities of what those models can be by establishing a broad criteria for what a participatory economy must address? For example, as a statement we all agree on, we could say something like:

  • Capitalist economics has three primary classes:

    • Capitalist class (owners).

    • Managerial class (order givers).

    • Working class (order takers).

  • Our task is to develop models for classless alternatives to capitalism.

  • This is part of a broader effort to envision and organise for a liberated society, not only in the economic sphere but also in the kinship, community and political spheres that, in turn, generate international peace and environmental sustainability.

If this is the basis for agreement around what participatory economics is about then it would have a number of benefits. First, it would maintain the basic class analysis that informs current expressions of participatory economics whilst also highlighting the importance of developing vision. Second, in creating this space we would release the stranglehold that the current single model approach has over participatory economics and open things up for further creativity. Third, and most importantly, opening up to a multi-model approach, within the broad constraints of the above criteria, makes the likelihood of gaining large scale support for participatory economics much more likely.

But what might this look like in the real world? The idea would be to create spaces for those interested in developing and organising around participatory vision to step into. Each space could focus on one of the spheres (politics, community, kinship and economics) or contexts (international reparations and environmental stewardship) and run as a self-managed project. Also, each project would, as with the economic example above, be established based on a basic criteria. The main condition for joining a project could be an agreement with that criteria.


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