Why isn’t the participatory economy model more popular?
By Mitchell Szczepanczyk
“[W]hen we wonder what to put in [place of capitalism], we are extremely perplexed”,
so said the noted economist John Maynard Keynes. The British economist Alec Nove put it in even more stark terms, writing that you have either markets or central planning,
“there is no third way.”
And yet, this year (2021) marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of two books (“Looking Forward” and “The Political Economy of Participatory Economics“) marking the effective debut of the economy model now known as a participatory economy (PE) — a proposed economy with neither markets nor command planning.
In other fields of study, if a longstanding problem has been solved, even in theory, it would merit coverage, attention. People would talk about it, students would hear about it in their classes. If it was a problem with huge ramifications, the announcement of a solution would be met with celebrations, spontaneous parties, declarations that this is the greatest thing ever.
In the thirty years since the debut of the participatory economy model, PE has been presented and re-presented in books, articles, fora, debates, websites, interviews. Even a handful of businesses which have come and gone (almost all gone, unfortunately) have implemented some aspects of PE. As far as I can discern, there’s barely any coverage, even on the left and among left activists, of PE. My own attempts over the years to help spread the word have been most often met by shrugged indifference, and usually a polite nod among the relative few who bother to listen, but not much more.
So why isn’t PE more popular? Why isn’t this proposed solution to one of society’s more longstanding and vexing problems more popular, even among left activists and other likeminded folks? I can posit a few possible responses to this question, listed below. The real answer could well be something else, or something more, or some combination of what’s below, or something altogether different.
Most economists don’t care
The considerable majority of economists, like much of society and the world, has been beholden to the neoliberal dogma of markets uber alles for decades, and they’ve been hostile to non-market alternatives, even theoretical alternatives. The thing is, who are everyday folks naturally going to turn to for answers about economics? Mainstream economists, of course, and if mainstream economists collectively shrug or ignore non-market alternatives, those alternatives will never get the imprimatur of the profession that most people rely on for answers. To be fair, the economics profession has gotten a comeuppance in recent decades, due to no small part by the 2008 financial crisis. Nevertheless, the tree of market economics still stands even with all the notches and cuts — for now.
The media don’t care
Another way to gain the attention of masses of people is via the media, which for a long time (and to a great extent today) is the way to build awareness for a given issue or cause. However, most of the major media are profit-oriented corporations, which also adhere to neoliberal dogma, as well as the restrictions of content imposed by the Propaganda Model. Hence, there’s no reason for the mass media to give the PE model any attention. Yes, the internet has diluted the strength of the media in some ways, but the institutions and the ideology remain in place — for now.
Left organizations are classist
One of the greatest essays I have ever read is “Winning” by Eric Patton. Here’s an excerpt:
[L]ook at what’s going on at Northwest Airlines [in 2012]. The mechanics’ union is on strike. The machinists’ union is crossing the mechanics’ union’s picket line and doing some of the mechanics’ work. Let me repeat that. The mechanics’ union is on strike. The machinists’ union is crossing the mechanics’ union’s picket line and doing some of the mechanics’ work. That where we currently are. If you punch a time clock, what are your options? Man, your job already sucks. You may as well make the best of it, because it ain’t changing anytime soon… From an organizational standpoint, the left has a fatal problem: it’s classist. Working people are not stupid. They know. Maybe not consciously, but they know nonetheless.”
Most institutions on the left mimic the setup on the right, so it’s understandable why there’s been little traction on the left for democratic planning — they don’t want to lose what position and power they have.
PE doesn’t have a popular example
The New York Times Magazine published an essay about some how scientific discoveries that helped humanity didn’t do so at first; those discoveries languished, sometimes for decades. Take for example Louis Pasteur’s namesake technique of heating cow’s milk to kill deadly bacteria. Pasteur discovered that in 1865, but the United States would not pasteurize its milk at a large scale until the 1920s. The article explains why: “[P]rogress is never a result of scientific discovery alone. It also requires other forces: crusading journalism, activism, politics.” In the case of pasteurization, the tide turned when a department store part-owner saw two of his children die from milk-borne diseases and he launched a campaign to introduce wide-scale pasteurization. This faced resistance from both milk consumers (who didn’t want pasteurization to affect the taste of milk) and the milk industry (who didn’t want to change their production methods). Government investigations, scientific, political reformers, campaigned for years, before ultimately succeeding.
I wonder if a similar parallel can be drawn with PE. We have what we think is a better model, but that doesn’t automatically make it into being. We need to build an example that people can see and can’t be ignored; possibly, many examples. Eric Patton also discusses this in a passage worth quoting at length:
Remember why we, the United States, invaded South Vietnam? Remember why we overthrew Allende in Chile? Or the democratically elected Sandinsta government in Nicaragua? How about “our” (meaning “U.S. elites'”) longstanding violence and hatred toward Cuba? Or our…festering rage at Hugo Chavez in Venezuela?
The real threat is always that of a good example. South End Press, Arbeiter Ring Publishing, Mondragon Cafe, The NewStandard — these organizations may all be organized around a participatory model but they are also all small, and thus easily ignored by the broad United States left, which is not eager to incorporate their participatory economic organizational principles into what they do.
But if a large outfit like United for Peace and Justice, with its one-million-dollar per-year budget, forswore the Dark Side of the Force, going participatory instead, you would suddenly have an example too large to ignore. People all over the left would know about it. They would begin thinking about it, they would start asking uncomfortable questions about it, and very quickly they would begin demanding it — unions, civil rights groups, feminist groups, environmental groups — you name it. Dominoes would begin to fall very quickly.
Suddenly, you’d have a participatory left, emanating real pressure on the society at large. And just as suddenly, there would be, from the elite standpoint, ungodly pressure brought to bear to do something, anything, to make the problem go away. Troops home now, single payer health care, out of Haiti, seriousness about addressing global warming, out of Palestine, a move away from the oil economy, media images of women, public transportation, a less racist legal system, more honest media coverage. Name it. What would you like to change in society today?
The power levels possessed by such a left would be immense. Suddenly, we’d be the ones setting the tone, dictating tempo, calling the shots, playing offense, writing the rules. Elites would be on the defensive, running terrified, looking for anything and everything to kill the monster, to make the movement stop.
As long as we did our jobs properly, the movement would never stop. We’d just keep winning and winning and winning.
Would it really be that easy? No. Because the hard part is getting United for Peace and Justice to organize around participatory principles. But once you do that, the hard part is done. Everything else becomes gravy.
Those of us involved in an international group of PE advocates and allies are working towards building tools that can help bring to life one or more such large-scale examples. But others reading this should also work to instantiate other examples.
What do you think of these reasons? Are there other possible reasons I left out?