Parecon Lost

Disorganizing the World


"If we can't organize a conference of 100,000 people, what about a world of six billion?" asks activist and writer Barbara Ehrenreich in this month's The Progressive. Ehrenreich was despairing about the chaos that she experienced as a "delegate" to the World Social Forum's annual meeting this past January in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Around 100,000 activists from 51 countries showed up to the conference wistfully entitled "Another World is Possible."

This year's WSF attracted a hodge-podge of living wage campaigners, affordable housing activists, anti-war organizations, trade unionists, indigenous people in their native outfits, Argentinean militants, feminists, peasants, water rights activists, and students.

"One aim of the forum was to provide the space for imagining a post-capitalist or at least post-neo-liberal world," according to Ehrenreich. Other WSF participants describe it as "part of the world mobilization against neo-liberal globalization that emerged in Seattle in 1999 against the WTO, and has since traveled through Prague, Quebec and Genoa to Porto Alegre." Organizers designed it as a response to the World Economic Forum meeting in which leading businessmen and politicians from around the world gather annually in Davos, Switzerland. The WSF is supposed to offer "a variety of alternatives against the elite globalization that is being imposed by corporations and their state affiliates."

What alternatives? One alternative cited by Ehrenreich cites is "Parecon," an acronym for "participatory economics" described by Znet founder and activist Michael Albert in his book of the same title. Parecon is nothing more than a fanciful reworking of the usual leftwing economic daydreams that have beguiled would-be egalitarians for the last two centuries.

Parecon is based on four values. The first is solidarity, which Albert declares would "propel even antisocial people into having to address others' well being." Of course, the capitalism he loathes does just that, as Adam Smith pointed out more than 200 years ago. "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love," explained Smith in The Wealth of Nations. Markets allow people who desperately disagree, for example pro-choicers and right-to-lifers, to truck and trade peaceably together. In fact, markets are the most pro-social institutions ever devised by humanity. They even allow people who hate them to sell their books.

The second value is diversity. "Capitalist markets homogenize options," claims Albert. On its face, this is an absurd claim. Before capitalism, most people had one option; they had to spend all their time raising food. In advanced market economies the ways of making a living are fantastically diverse today. With regard to products, one need only walk down the aisles of any grocery store to see how wildly off the mark Albert is.

The third value is equity. Under Parecon people will evidently be rewarded based only on their physical effort. The notion of human capital, someone training herself to do very complicated or refined work, is thrown completely out the window. This is sweat equity with a vengeance and is related to Albert's fourth value, self-management.

Self management destroys the notion of the division of labor which has done so much to propel humanity from its natural state of poverty to a non-zero sum world in which more and more people can participate in the fruits of economic growth. Everybody who is affected by a decision gets to vote. He limits voting to the workplace, but why not include other "social" decisions, such as whom people get to marry and how many kids they can have? After all, those decisions have "social consequences," too.

And who decides how hard someone has worked? Albert's solution is to make everyone's mix of tasks equally hard in some sense as decided by worker's councils. According to Albert, "A Parecon doesn't have someone who does only surgery, but instead has people who do some surgery, and some cleaning of the hospital, and some other tasks—such that the sum of all that they do incorporates a fair mix of tasks." I suspect patients would prefer to go under the knives of surgeons who spend all their time honing their skills instead of learning how to run floor-waxing machines.

Clearly, parecon is a deeply confused version of primitive communism that is appealing to deeply ingrained instincts for tribal forms of egalitarianism. Ehrenreich herself notes that Albert has merely "offered familiar left versions of 'another world.'"

Even though her ideology will not allow Ehrenreich to dismiss Parecon as silly, she proves it by citing the case of Porto Alegre where the Worker's Party tried a version of participatory democracy in devising its budget. The process involved hundreds of citizens meeting repeatedly over the course of a year to devise the city's budget. She then cites Brazilian economist Paul Singer's observation that "if it took hundreds of people to plan 50 percent of the budget for one medium-sized city, the process of planning for a nation could be cumbersome beyond imagining."

Finally and strangely, Ehrenreich claims, "No one yet knows how to make collective decisions on a national or global scale, and to do it in a way that is both flexible and inclusive of the illiterate street vendors and laborers of the world." No one? How about we start with the 86 electoral democracies that Freedom House identified in 2001 as "free?"