The Project for a Participatory Society’s 'vision'

Hi, my name is Mark Evans.

Submitted by Joseph Kay on August 13, 2009

I live in Birmingham (UK) where I work for the National Health Service (NHS) as a Health Care Assistant (HCA) on a neuro-surgical ward. In addition to doing my work as a HCA I am also an active trade union member. These activities bring together two main interests of mine – neurology / psychology and social justice which in turn I see as being related to broader issues regarding human nature and social organisation.

Over the past two or three years I have also been involved in helping to set up a new UK based initiative call PPS-UK (Project for a Participatory Society - This initiative is part of a growing international network that, I think I am right in saying, has emerged as a result of two basic factors. One factor has to do with dissatisfaction with existing ideas for progressive social transformation. The other factor has been the development of new vision and strategy that has resulted from a complete reassessment of left-wing theory and practice. This important work continues today mainly via ZCom ( where anybody with an interest in progressive ideas can participate through various facilities, including an on-line school.

My understanding here is that we are to debate “economic vision”. This assumes that we are, to some extent, unhappy with the existing economic system. Personally I would say that I am against every major institutional feature of capitalism. But this is not a new position for me that has been brought on by the present economic crisis. On the contrary, I would argue that by any humane standards capitalism is always in crisis. Just think of all the people who are dying from malnutrition unnecessarily every day, or who are not receiving medication for curable diseases. These are well known examples but there are many other illustrations of ongoing economic crisis that are virtually unknown. For example, research undertaken over the last 20 years shows that even after material needs are met economic inequality has a major impact on the health of a society. The bigger the inequality gap the more unhealthy the society - and we are not just talking about income here. It seems that levels of control and participation are what really matter and that this has a direct affect on our health and life expectancy.

So, from this perspective I would argue that capitalism is in a permanent state of crisis and that the present crisis we are all hearing about everyday on the news has more to do with a system that primarily functions in the interests of elite’s becoming unstable. Putting aside this narrow and selfish definition of crisis lets try to understand why capitalism is in a permanent state of crisis before developing or talking about alternative economic vision.

My basic explanation would derive from a simple economic analysis that can be understood by virtually anyone. As I have already said, capitalist economic functions in the interest of elites. The reasons for this are pretty obvious.

Under capitalism, a very small minority privately owns economic institutions. This group is commonly known as the capitalist class. Also, the hierarchical division of labour allows for decision-making authority and empowering tasks to be monopolised by another privileged group. This is a not so commonly understood group I call the coordinator class. This arrangement leaves the vast majority, who are commonly referred to as the working class, to follow orders from above and undertake mostly undesirable tasks that are often mind numbing. What’s more, capitalist economics rewards ownership, privilege and power thus institutionalising a system of remuneration that maintains inequality and class exploitation and dominance.

Straight away we can see that an economic system with this set-up is not going to function in the interests of the common good. But there is more bad news! In addition to production taking place within institutions that are privately owned, with authoritarian decision-making and a hierarchical division of labour, and consumption levels being determined by ownership and power, capitalism allocates its produce via competitive markets.

Competitive markets create a stressful economic environment whereby everyone is pitted against everyone else. In order to survive businesses are forced to employ strategies and tactics that do not take into account the true social cost of their activities. In such a competitive environment corporations simply cannot afford to take to much notice of the environmental consequences of their actions, of workers rights, or of the basic needs of the general public. Unless public relations requires it the capitalist economic system does not and cannot allow for serious considerations of such important issues.

From this simple analysis we can see that capitalism institutionalises economic inequality and systematically distorts economic priorities. In the short term this benefits a small minority but at the expense of the vast majority (and in the end to the detriment of everyone) – hence the permanent economic crisis.

But what is the alternative to capitalist economics? What would a sustainable economic system that functions in the interests of the common good look like? More precisely – What is the alternative to private ownership? What is the alternative to production taking place within a hierarchical division of labour and via authoritarian decision-making? What is the alternative to consumption levels being determined by remuneration for ownership, privilege and power? What is the alternative to competitive markets as a means of allocating the goods and services we produces and consume?
I believe that these are the core questions that anti-capitalists must have answers to. Advocates of participatory economics (ParEcon) propose the following as answers to these questions –

Social Ownership: In a participatory economy private ownership is replaced by democratically run worker and consumer councils. Although advocates of ParEcon tend to talk about social ownership as an alternative to private ownership it is probably more accurate to say that ownership in a participatory economy would become something of a none issue.

Self-management: As we have seen ParEcon institutions are democratically ran. But as we all know “democracy” is a term used to describe all sorts of systems, including ones that are very elitist. For this reason, and to avoid confusion, we talk of “self-management” as a specific type of economic democracy. For us self-management means that everyone gets a say in a decision in proportion to how much they are affected by the outcome of that decision. So for example, if the outcome of a decision only affects me then I have absolute say in that decision – everyone else has zero say. On the other hand if the outcome of a decision affects a work mate and me equally (and no one else) then we both have equal say in that decision, and so on and so forth.

Balanced Job Complexes: As an alternative to the hierarchical division of labour, whereby some jobs are more desirable and empowering than others, we propose “balanced job complexes” (BJC). BJCs are jobs that are made up of an equal mix of empowering / desirable and not so empowering / desirable tasks. In a participatory economy everyone has a BJC. They are considered a necessary economic feature if self-management is to function and be maintained. They still allows for specialisation but without privilege. It also means that the suppressed skills and talent that are lost under the hierarchical division of labour can be utilised in a ParEcon making it more efficient.

Participatory Planning: Instead of competitive markets, in a participatory economy, goods and services are allocated via a process call “participatory planning”. This process involves a series of rounds in which producers and consumers propose and revise their economic activities in co-operation with each other via an “Iteration Facilitation Board” until an efficient and equitable plan is arrived at.

Effort and Sacrifice: With private ownership gone, along with authoritarian decision-making and the hierarchical division of labour, we can no longer reward ownership, privilege and power. Instead, advocates of ParEcon propose rewarding effort and sacrifice as fair criteria for remuneration. By this we mean that if a person works longer or harder, or if a person undertakes tasks that are generally considered to be less desirable then they should be entitled to more reward.

Individually these features represent alternatives to every major institutional feature of capitalism. Together they represent an alternative economic system to capitalism. They describe means by which production, consumption and allocation can systematically take place in the interest of the common good and in ways that are both sustainable and efficient. They also institutionalise egalitarian control over economic life which in turn nurtures social cohesion.

I think that this represents the kind of long-term vision the anti-capitalist movement is in dire need of. For without such a vision it is highly unlikely that anti-capitalists will be able to organise the popular and effective movement we desire and need.