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Book Reviews ...

Book: Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21st Century Edited by Chris Spannos
Review by: James Generic
(Posted 5.6.2007)

Parecon is an economic school coming from the libertarian socialist and anarchist school of thought, in opposition to traditional liberal economics or centrally planned economies. It seems to argue three basic things.

The first is that in society, there is a capitalist class, a working class, and a coordinator class, updating Marxist work of dividing the entirety of society into bourgeois and proletarian classes, with all else being outside the historical class struggle. Parecon argues that this really leaves out a coordinator class in modern capitalism. A class consisting of people like professors, professionals, managers, supervisors, police, small business owners and other people who do not own large means of production, but  do in fact have powers over the working class as the experts of society. This would explain such phenomena  like after the Russian Revolution where the Bolshevik Party became the new rulers, ruling in the name of the workers.

The second part of parecon theory explores future economies, and argues that society should be run by a mixture of workers councils running workplaces and consumer councils determining how to distribute goods  and materials. Neighborhood organizations would also run neighborhoods, with any delegation being recallable. In addition, boards would plan out further economics.

Some of the other features are that where things effect people more, like if you live in a certain place, your voice means more. Another main feature is that "rote" work (or "shitwork") and "empowering" work (enjoyable work) is regularly rotated. Participatory economics originated between work of Robin Hahnel and Michael Albert, much of which came from direct experience working in collectives. They try to emphasize deconstructing gender roles, ecology, democratic processes, fair distribution, balancing talent and time, education, and empowering work.

"Real Utopia: Participatory Economics for the 21st Century", edited by Chris Spannos, is a collection of essays by not only Hanel and Albert, but a multitude of others who have developed parecon theory, used it  in real collecive work, and have written extensively in defense of participatory economics. It is divided into  sections like theory; exploring how parecon could be used in a future post-capitalist world; how parecon can be used in places outside the US like Africa, the Balkans, or Argentina, applying parecon theory to historical  examples like the Russian Revolution or the Spanish Revolution, or Social Democracy in the 20th century;  parecon in practice from examples like South End Press, Mondragaon Bookstore and Cafe in Winnipeg, the  Newstandard magazine, the Vancouver Parecon Collective, and the Austin Project for Participatory Society; and  then how to incorporate parecon into larger social movements and fights for social justice and a new world.

Before I read this book, to be perfectly honest, I didn't really understand Participatory economics beyond the really bare essentials, and couldn't really read Michael Albert's books because of some of the dryness in them. The basics that I was familiar with seemed a little wonkish, even totally utopian. The only thing that I  really took away from from Partipatory Economics was the "Coordinator Class" theory, which really helped explain a lot of the co-optation of social movements over time. Reading this helped it make a whole lot more sense, especially in how people use it in everyday life.

I especially liked the section on Parecon in practice, as someone who's worked in collectives for years and didn't realize that we were using forms of parecon already. It certainly helps to emphasize shifting tasks around between the non-glorious rote stuff that is the meat and potatoes of any successful project, and the glorious stuff like dealing with press or being a recognized voice in the organization. Parecon also specifically leaves out how to arrive at such economics in society, since it does not call for a state takeover or even gradual reforms, but a vague confrontation with social institutions, something probably better since anyone who says they have 100% of a blueprint is probably full of shit. Some of the other criticisms I've heard, from anarchosyndicalists, is that a parecon world would be overly bureaucracitized and too technical. There might be some validity to that argument when parecon is presented in its purest theoretical form, but as a basic philosophy, I'm starting to think that it has a lot of merits to learn from.

Of course, the question remains how to get to such a society? The quote of, "building a new world in the shell of the old," seems to be what parecon advocates, but what about repression? Perhaps that is not really the aim of parecon, and it simply wishes to deal with the economics and political questions, not how to arrive at that or deal with confrontations with the old order. So much of the literature of the Left deals with criticism of the existing systems and not a lot of print on what to do afterwards beyond vagaries. Chris Spannos did a wonderful job assembling essays dealing with how organizing another world would work from the bottom up, with the thought in mind that smashing capitalism or the state does not solve the worlds problems in a day, lest worse problems arise (as seen in Russia). One needs to take a good look at what sort of society you'd want to live in and take steps to try to achieve that society, here and in the future.

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