Participatory Economics Overview: What, Why, How

“Vision is not only about the future, but also the present. What would having a vision like the one called participatory economics imply for today’s practical choices?

Broadly considered, if you want to get someplace new, it behooves you to take steps towards where you want to go, not steps that take you somewhere else. An obvious corollary is that you shouldn’t reinforce unwanted old structures, nor should you create new ones that are contrary to reaching your destination. You should want to undermine unwanted old structures, and to develop new structures in tune with your aims. The familiar slogan is: ‘Plant the seeds of the future in the present’.

…A worthy vision for life beyond capitalism acknowledges that neither current nor future society is made up of perfect people, ever wise and ever willing to behave altruistically. Instead, we can build participatory institutions and systems that make it automatic, instead of impossible, for us to consider ourselves, each other, the environment, and any other ‘externalities’. We must therefore build a movement that fosters, promotes, and rewards equity, solidarity, self-management, diversity, and sustainability, for all. On this path, we will make mistakes and continue to be human, but we will no longer be systematically set up to fail.”

-Alexandria Shaner & Michael Albert, “Participatory Economics Overview: What, Why, How.” mέta: The Centre for Postcapitalist Civilisation. 2022. DOI: 10.55405/mwp14en

While utopian, I do like the fundamental point. If you want people to participate in decision-making, the fundamental problem is creating institutions that support participation. The fundamental problem is not people. People are not going to change to create your vision of the world. The institutions have to change.

Woke or Witch-Hunt?

“At the protest, I met Tulsi Patel, a postdoc at Columbia. Patel tells me about a new bullying policy at Columbia, which she helped to write, to deal with “power-based harassment” that doesn’t fall into the already illegal categories like sex and race-based harassment. “We recommended calling it the Office of Conflict Resolution, just to make it sound like a chill thing, like it’s about resolving conflicts,” Patel said. The provost is reviewing the proposal. 

Grossman, the dean of NYU’s medical school, talks a lot about, “listening to our community” and “believing in the process,” but the protestors don’t really care about any of that. They’re playing a different game. They know that if they make enough noise, if they claim enough “harm,” NYU— or any other school that brands itself as inclusive or progressive—will give in. And even if Sabatini were hired, no one would have worked with him. It would have been social suicide to.  

Many of the researchers and postdocs I spoke to pointed out that, as scientists, it’s essential to look carefully at all the evidence and to leave no stone unturned. The way the Whitehead and MIT conducted their investigation into David Sabatini runs counter, they say, to the scientific method itself. It also sends a clear message: That ground-breaking research takes a backseat to an ideal of social purity, and that subjective truth is the only truth that matters.

“In my lab, there were two criteria we always strived toward; that the discovery is fundamentally true, which means proving it in many different ways, and that it’s new,” Sabatini said. “Everyone talks about your truth, and my truth. Physically, chemically, there’s only one truth.”

-Suze Weiss, “He Was a World-Renowned Cancer Researcher. Now He’s Collecting Unemployment.” bariweiss.substack.com. May 19, 2022.

Obviously a one-sided story. But, it does raise questions about what the appropriate response to these kinds of allegations should be. In this version, it would appear that Sabatini is on the receiving end of someone using sexual harassment as a tool for punishment for a relationship that did not work out.

Then, there are claims like those against Warren Ellis, who had many women have come forward has a pattern of “sexual manipulation.” Or women like Chrissy Hynde, who blame themselves for sexual assault.

Further, much of this discussion falls into black and white notions of someone being at fault. Relationships are complex. People make mistakes. But, there are also people acting badly and unaccountably. What to do about it?

Conflict resolution seems like a reasonable way to think about it. But, what does “resolution” consist of? If it is truly about creating environments where people feel safe, then the main focus of the process cannot be about passing judgment and destroying people.

Where’s the line between woke and witch hunt? How can we move to create safer, more inclusive spaces, but at the same time, recognize that people make mistakes? With all the discussion about these issues, you rarely see any nuance beyond passing judgment and attacking people. That’s not creating a safe environment for anyone.

Love as the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks

“Critically examining these blind spots, I conclude that many of us are motivated to move against domination solely when we feel our self-interest directly threatened. Often, then, the 1onging is not for a collective transformation of society, an end to politics of dominations, but rather simply for an end to what we feel is hurting us. This is why we desperately need an ethic of love to intervene in our self-centered longing for change. Fundamentally, if we are only committed to an improvement in that politic of domination that we feel leads directly to our individual exploitation or oppression, we not only remain attached to the status quo but act in complicity with it, nurturing and maintaining those very systems of domination. Until we are all able to accept the interlocking,interdependent nature of systems of domination and recognize specific ways each system is maintained, we will continue to act in ways that undermine our individual quest for freedom and collective liberation struggle.”

-bell hooks, “Love as the practice of freedom.” Outlaw Culture. New York: Routledge, 2006. pg. 244.

R.I.P. bell hooks. bell hooks was an important thinker in my life. When I was at university, I took a philosophy of feminism class. In retrospect, there was weird dynamics, where as being one of the few males in the class I was called upon to give a male perspective. The professor had a domineering style of evaluating papers, requiring five paragraph essays on the content with a specific form. Some of this may be an adaptation to students arguing they were given lower grades because the teacher did not like their perspective, but it had the unfortunate effect of negative influencing how I viewed feminism. But, bell hooks spoke in ways few other feminists did, and she showed me, through her writing, the bigger picture of domination, alienation, and so forth. Feminism is part of a larger prescription necessary to help heal the world.

Between the “Quotes” & Control

“Not needing a family member for support or because you plan to inherit the family farm means that who we choose to spend time with is based more on our identities and aspirations for growth than survival or necessity,” he explains. “Today, nothing ties an adult child to a parent beyond that adult child’s desire to have that relationship.”

Increased opportunities to live and work in different cities or even countries from our adult families can also help facilitate a parental break-up, simply by adding physical distance.

“It’s been much easier for me to move around than it would have been probably 20 years ago,” agrees Faizah, who is British with a South Asian background, and has avoided living in the same area as her family since 2014. 

She says she cut ties with her parents because of “controlling” behaviours like preventing her from going to job interviews, wanting an influence on her friendships and putting pressure on her to get married straight after her studies. “They didn’t respect my boundaries,” she says. “I just want to have ownership over my own life and make my own choices.” 

-Maddy Savage, “Family estrangement: Why adults are cutting off their parents.” BBC.December 1st, 2021.

From a language perspective, I found this article interesting because clearly the “quotes” are direct quotes, but because of the way “quotes” are frequently used elsewhere, I read the “controlling” in the above as possibly questioning whether the behavior of preventing a child from going on job interviews, influencing their friendships and applying pressure to get married counts as “controlling”. These behaviors are incredibly common. At the same time, they are obviously controlling.

But, it’s a sign of a new line being drawn. Influencing your child’s choice of friends when they are children is probably prudent. But, is it prudent when they reach the age of maturity? And, even asking that question has bias. In many cultures, there is this idea that older people have wisdom and should be influencing those younger than them throughout their lives. The counterpoint is that much that counts as wisdom are like mesofacts: something that was true at one time but is no longer true.

This can also be true of life strategies. In a particular time, it may have made sense to get credentials and look for a career with one company. Or, it may have made sense for women to get married and have children young. But, does that value square with a woman getting a university education first? Financially, it’s a difficult argument to make. It doesn’t make financial sense. But, it may make sense from other perspectives. For example, educated women may, arguably, do a better job educating their children. Or, perhaps, a university education can be used as a proxy for ability or intelligence, and increase someone’s value on the marriage market.

When you think this through, it’s clear that the social environment and values are changing. Older generations like the way things were because they had more control. And, reading through this article, it’s clear that much of the topic of estrangement is about control. It’s also about what we will tolerate. We tolerate more when incentives are lined-up to support certain lines of control. But, if you are bringing less to the table (or negatives in the case of abusive people), then you get less control, no matter how old you are or how much wisdom you think you have.

The Purpose of Dialogue

Open Question: What is the purpose of dialogue?

  • People generally only change their minds when in conversation with someone that loves them. How many conversations are we having with people we love?
  • Maybe the point of conversation is to change our own minds. If we aren’t coming from that place, are we in dialogue at all?
  • Trying to change other people’s mind is often a futile exercise. If true, then why bother having any dialogue at all?

Related: Agree to Disagree or Fight, Really Reading Means Being Open To Change, Arguing for a Different Reality, Celebrating Our Differences, and others.

Communities vs. Transactions

My wife and I have different ways of looking at the world. It occurs to me today that the ambiguity of these two ways of looking at relationships is often exploited.

I think my wife’s understanding is typical. In her view, people do things for one another because they care about one another. Unless it is some extraordinary request, you don’t count the cost. If someone doesn’t care about you, or you them, then you are not obligated to do anything for them. In fact, it’s likely you won’t help them because you don’t have the feeling of reciprocity from them.

However, one problem with looking at the world in this way is that beyond a certain threshold, the community model moves into a transactional model. Someone asks for something beyond the normal level of reciprocity of the commons, and then you owe them something extraordinary in return. But, it’s tacit. This is never actually said because the transactional model is a different model of interaction, and it undermines the community model.

There are also some cases where there will never be anything in return. But, sometimes the obligation is created across generations, such as taking care of elderly parents with the hope that, one day, your children might take care of you in a similiar manner. These kinds of commitments gives community longevity, so they last beyond the current participants. But, again, there’s quite a bit of ambiguity, and in many cases, expectations won’t get met.

I start from a different place. I assume every interaction is transactional, and I try, to the degree possible, to be autonomous and self-sufficient. The last part is key.

In the transactional model, you’re in the world of commodities and commerce. While there are relationships built on commerce, they are not relationships of regard or community, they are relationships of convenience. The advantage of being autonomous and self-sufficent is you can live in a world of commerce and not have to count the cost, the same way that you live when you live in the community model, except it doesn’t matter whether people care about you or not.

Except, obviously, it does matter whether people care about you. The difference is that I don’t need that to be the basis for my day-to-day interactions with everyone. There is a small group of people that I interact with the expectations of community. But, outside of that small group, it’s the transactional model.

And, here’s why that’s important. When you go to a subreddit, like antiwork, and you see that a boss asks someone to come in on short notice and be a “team” player. That’s a community argument. But, does the boss care about you? Not at all. The relationship is transactional. Working this kind of ambiguity, given how many people subscribe to the community model, is a path for exploitation. It’s really that simple.

Confronting the Technological Society

“But as more and more activities and areas of life get absorbed in technique — in recent years perhaps most visibly through digital technologies shaping friendships, learning, buying and selling, travel, music, leisure, and much else — the possibilities of pushing back against it diminish. The lesson here is not that the particular technologies are necessarily harmful and ought to be shunned. Rather, while they aim to make countless activities easier and more efficient — and us happier — they tend to obscure from our vision the real, kaleidoscopic, sometimes maddening but appropriate complexities of these activities. Education, political engagement, friendship, artistic and scholarly excellence, moral and intellectual virtue — these are and remain vexingly difficult, and there are no shortcuts to becoming good at them, even if various tools are helpful along the way. What we need is to learn to appreciate the tensions and difficulties of pursuing these deeply meaningful ends. As Ellul writes in The Political Illusion, “Only tension and conflict form personality, not only on the loftiest, most personal plane, but also on the collective plane.”

An ethics of nonpower — choosing not to exercise mastery at the expense of proper human ends — will involve tensions and conflicts, the maintenance of which is a prerequisite for the pursuit of the best things. The craftsmen of governments demanding separation of powers and a system of checks and balances recognized this principle, ensuring restraint and organized tensions to prevent despotism. Freedom requires tension, and Ellul in his insistence on dialectical thinking is ultimately concerned with preserving human freedom. Whereas technologies grant us greater freedom to master our environment, technique as a whole restrains it and itself becomes the new environment resisting our mastery. An important point Ellul seems to have missed is that for the technician, the craftsman, and the mechanic, mastery over technology requires not confrontation from without but proper care for the thing and submission to its physical demands. Freedom from the tool goes hand in hand with freedom and skill to manipulate it, which often makes older tools that reveal their workings superior to the new ones that conceal them. The master technician may thus be freer than the mere user who has not been disciplined by the making of the tool…

…We ought instead to take Ellul’s book, placed in the context of his larger work, as an appeal to walk a middle path between unrestrained technophilia and reactionary technophobia, a path we see only if we refocus on human ends, which are familial, communal, political, and ecclesial. This requires that we are willing to admit that among our vast array of technical means many fail to serve us well, that progress on this path has often little to do with innovation, and that control over our means is not simply given but something we must struggle for by confronting them with these higher than technical ends.

-Samuel Matlack, “Confronting the Technological Society.” The New Atlantis. Summer/Fall 2014.

Another reminder, along with L.M. Sacasas’ The Convivial Society, to read Ellul’s work.

Mimesis, Unconscious Imitation

“What happened that night is something I now recognize as disruptive empathy. The cycle of conflict that stems from unchecked mimesis (unconscious imitation)—like that of a debt collector and a debtor, each responding mimetically to the aggression of the other—was derailed. There was an unexpected breaking in of empathy, something that transcended the moment. 

Fear, anxiety, and anger are easily amplified by mimesis. A colleague sends me an email that seems curt or disrespectful, I respond in kind; and passive aggression spreads like wildfire, beyond two people and through an entire organizational culture. 

René Girard uses the example of a handshake gone wrong to illustrate how deep-rooted mimesis is—and how it explains things we usually ascribe to simply being “reactionary.” There’s nothing trivial about a handshake. Say that you extend your hand to me, and I leave you hanging. I don’t imitate your ritual gesture. What happens? You become inhibited and withdraw—probably equally as much, and probably more, than you sensed I did to you. “We suppose that there is nothing more normal, more natural than this reaction, and yet a moment’s reflection will reveal its paradoxical character,” writes Girard. “If I decline to shake your hand, if, in short, I refuse to imitate you, then you are now the one who imitates me, by reproducing my refusal, by copying me instead. Imitation, which usually expresses agreement in this case, now serves to confirm and strengthen disagreement. Once again, in other words, imitation triumphs. Here we see how rigorously, how implacably mutual imitation structures even the simplest human relations.” 

This is how negative mimetic cycles start. We are not condemned to them, though. 

When we make the effort of getting to know people at their core, we reduce the possibility of cheap mimetic interactions. Knowing someone at their core requires sharing and listening to a particular kind of experience: stories of deeply fulfilling action. Knowing and relating to these stories produces empathy and a greater understanding of human behavior. 

A negative mimetic cycle is disrupted when two people, through empathy, stop seeing each other as rivals.”

-Luke Burgis, “Empathy Lessons … from a Hitman.” Arc Digital. June 15, 2021

Principles of Democratic Structuring

“Once the movement [grows to the point of needing structure and/or] no longer clings tenaciously to the ideology of “structurelessness,” it is free to develop those forms of organization best suited to its healthy functioning. This does not mean that we should go to the other extreme and blindly imitate the traditional forms of organization. But neither should we blindly reject them all. Some of the traditional techniques will prove useful, albeit not perfect; some will give us insights into what we should and should not do to obtain certain ends with minimal costs to the individuals in the movement. Mostly, we will have to experiment with different kinds of structuring and develop a variety of techniques to use for different situations. The Lot System is one such idea which has emerged from the movement. It is not applicable to all situations, but is useful in some. Other ideas for structuring are needed. But before we can proceed to experiment intelligently, we must accept the idea that there is nothing inherently bad about structure itself — only its excess use.

While engaging in this trial-and-error process, there are some principles we can keep in mind that are essential to democratic structuring and are also politically effective:

1) Delegation of specific authority to specific individuals for specific tasks by democratic procedures. Letting people assume jobs or tasks only by default means they are not dependably done. If people are selected to do a task, preferably after expressing an interest or willingness to do it, they have made a commitment which cannot so easily be ignored.

2) Requiring all those to whom authority has been delegated to be responsible to those who selected them. This is how the group has control over people in positions of authority. Individuals may exercise power, but it is the group that has ultimate say over how the power is exercised.

3) Distribution of authority among as many people as is reasonably possible. This prevents monopoly of power and requires those in positions of authority to consult with many others in the process of exercising it. It also gives many people the opportunity to have responsibility for specific tasks and thereby to learn different skills.

4) Rotation of tasks among individuals. Responsibilities which are held too long by one person, formally or informally, come to be seen as that person’s “property” and are not easily relinquished or controlled by the group. Conversely, if tasks are rotated too frequently the individual does not have time to learn her job well and acquire the sense of satisfaction of doing a good job.

5) Allocation of tasks along rational criteria. Selecting someone for a position because they are liked by the group or giving them hard work because they are disliked serves neither the group nor the person in the long run. Ability, interest, and responsibility have got to be the major concerns in such selection. People should be given an opportunity to learn skills they do not have, but this is best done through some sort of “apprenticeship” program rather than the “sink or swim” method. Having a responsibility one can’t handle well is demoralizing. Conversely, being blacklisted from doing what one can do well does not encourage one to develop one’s skills. Women have been punished for being competent throughout most of human history; the movement does not need to repeat this process.

6) Diffusion of information to everyone as frequently as possible. Information is power. Access to information enhances one’s power. When an informal network spreads new ideas and information among themselves outside the group, they are already engaged in the process of forming an opinion — without the group participating. The more one knows about how things work and what is happening, the more politically effective one can be.

7) Equal access to resources needed by the group. This is not always perfectly possible, but should be striven for. A member who maintains a monopoly over a needed resource (like a printing press owned by a husband, or a darkroom) can unduly influence the use of that resource. Skills and information are also resources. Members’ skills can be equitably available only when members are willing to teach what they know to others.

When these principles are applied, they insure that whatever structures are developed by different movement groups will be controlled by and responsible to the group. The group of people in positions of authority will be diffuse, flexible, open, and temporary. They will not be in such an easy position to institutionalize their power because ultimate decisions will be made by the group at large. The group will have the power to determine who shall exercise authority within it.

-Jo Freeman (aka Joreen), “The Tyranny of Structurenessless.” jofreeman.com. May 1970.