Vancouver Participatory Economics Collective

Welcome to the homepage of the Vancouver Parecon Collective! Our purpose is to advocate, research and implement parecon institutions, values and procedures in Vancouver, the surrounding lower mainland and elswhere throught Canada. We do this through workshops, information sharing and activism. We are committed to supporting struggles against classism, racism, sexism, war, corporate greed, environmental destruction, and all other institutional horrors we face today.

"A great many activists and concerned people ask, quite rightly, what alternative form of social organization can be imagined that might overcome the grave flaws -- often real crimes -- of contemporary society in more far-reaching ways than short-term reform. Parecon is the most serious effort I know to provide a very detailed possible answer to some of these questions, crucial ones, based on serious thought and careful analysis."
-- Noam Chomsky

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An Interview with Robin Hahnel: A Participatory Peace; Looking Inside the Anti-War Movement

This interview was conducted via email in May 2006 by Marla Renn of the Vancouver Participatory Economics Collective. Robin Hahnel has taught political economy at American University for 30 years. He is a longtime activist and author of many books, including Economic Justice and Democracy: From Competition to Cooperation (Routledge, 2005).

Marla Renn: As a veteran of the 1960's anti-war movement, and a participant in today's anti-war movement, what differences and similarities do you see between them? What lessons can be taken from the 60's to help build a worldwide movement for peace now?

Robin Hahnel: The most striking difference between the anti-Vietnam war movement and the anti-Iraq war movement is that the former started much smaller, only convinced a majority of Americans that we should withdraw from Vietnam after ten years of organizing in the face of intense hostility, but grew steadily in breadth and depth until the US government finally relented and withdrew all US troops from Indo-China. In stark contrast, the anti-Iraq war movement held its largest demonstration to date before "operation shock and awe" even began, in less than a year convinced a majority of Americans the war was launched under false pretenses rather easily, and has declined in visibility and influence ever since. If public opinion dictated policy American troops would have long departed Iraq and the US presence in Indo-China would have lasted even longer than it did.

As important as public opinion is, it does not determine US foreign policy. As long as both major political parties are firmly in the pockets of the military industrial complex, and as long as both major political parties believe the US should run the world and only disagree over what tactics to use, it will take more than public opinion to stop imperial ventures. So until a movement demanding that our government renounce all imperial ambitions forces those who preside over US foreign policy to redeploy the vast productive resources currently devoted to expanding our prodigious war-making capabilities to peaceful purposes, and to embrace the wisdom of peaceful cooperation and the rule of international law, anti-war movements in the United States have no choice but to raise the costs of pursuing particular imperial ventures if we hope to stop them.

While it pains me to say this, I believe the leadership of todays anti-war movement deserves some of the blame for the movement's growing impotence. For example, holding off on organizing major anti-war demonstrations in the fall of 2004 may have made sense since every progressive organization in the country was understandably focused first and foremost on re-defeating Bush-Cheney that November. But failing to call for major demonstrations the following spring was a terrible mistake. In general I think current anti-war leadership has been too passive and orchestrated opposition in ways that are too predictable and therefore too ignorable. In some respects current anti-war leaders have done better than their counterparts during the Vietnam War: They have made it clear we are not anti-soldier. They have minimized the inevitable friction between the anti-imperial and liberal wings of the peace movement. And they have not gotten suckered into debates over the details of withdrawal. These are by no means small or insignificant accomplishments. Nonetheless, a majority of the country wants out. The opposition party continues to sit on the fence and shows every sign of continuing to do so right into the next presidential election cycle. It is up to the anti-war movement to make sure that business in America does not proceed as usual until the will of the majority is enacted, and we need leadership who understands this is their job.

On the other hand I do not believe the different trajectories of the anti-Vietnam and anti-Iraq war movements are primarily due to differences in leadership. The anti-Vietnam war movement was part of a rising tide of progressive social activism in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s that began with the civil rights and black power movements, spread to the new left student movement, and led to the re-birth of the women's liberation movement and birth of the environmental movement. The anti-Iraq war movement, on the other hand, has struggled to grow in a political era when conservative social activism and power has reached its zenith. It is pointless to blame the leadership of today's anti-war movement for this underlying problem. The important lesson to draw is that turning the United States away from the path of empire will not be accomplished by an anti-war movement on its own. Only in combination with powerful movements pushing progressive agendas forward in every sphere of social life can the peace movement secure its goal. Nonetheless, it's high time the US anti-war movement kicked some butt!

MR: In the 1970's you and Michael Albert began to outline an economic model known as participatory economics (Parecon). Could you provide a brief sketch of it and explain why you feel it would be desirable?

RH: When Michael Albert and I were young New Left activists studying for our PhD in economics in the early 1970s, we came to the conclusion that the vision of a self-managed economy shared by many anarchists, council communists, syndicalists, and utopian socialists was essentially sound, but, unfortunately, these economic visionaries had failed to provide a coherent model explaining precisely how a libertarian socialist alternative to capitalism could work. Skeptics accused those, such as ourselves, who called for democratic planning by producers and consumers themselves of deluding ourselves and others. The famous British economist, Alec Nove, issued the challenge succinctly: "In a complex industrial economy the interrelation between its parts can be based in principle either on freely chosen negotiated contracts [i.e., markets], or on a system of binding instructions from planning offices [i.e., central planning.] There is no third way." The model of a participatory economy was initially developed to prove that skeptics like Nove were wrong. There is an alternative to markets and central planning, a "third way" where self-managing councils of workers and consumers coordinate their interrelated activities equitably and efficiently through a participatory, democratic planning procedure. We went on to argue that this "third way," now known as "participatory economics," is not only feasible but highly desirable.

A participatory economy is designed to promote: (a) economic justice, defined as economic reward commensurate with effort, or sacrifice; (b) economic democracy, or self-management, defined as decision making power in proportion to the degree one is affected by a decision; and (c) solidarity, defined as concern for the well being of others — all to be achieved without sacrificing economic efficiency while promoting a diversity of economic life styles. The major institutions used to achieve these goals are: (1) democratic councils of workers and consumers, (2) jobs balanced for empowerment and desirability, (3) remuneration according to effort as judged by one’s work mates, and (4) a participatory planning procedure in which councils and federations of workers and consumers propose and revise their own activities under rules designed to yield outcomes that are efficient and equitable.

Work: In a participatory economy production is carried out by worker councils where each member has one vote. Everyone is free to apply for membership in the council of his or her choice, or form a new worker council with whomever he or she wishes.

Jobs will be balanced for both desirability and empowerment. Every economy organizes work tasks into “jobs” which define what tasks an individual will perform. In hierarchical economies most jobs contain a number of similar, relatively undesirable, and relatively unempowering tasks, while a few jobs consist of relatively desirable and empowering tasks. But why should some people’s work lives be less desirable than other's? Does not taking equity seriously require balancing jobs for desirability? And if we want everyone to have equal opportunity to participate in economic decision making, if we want to ensure that the formal right to participate translates into an effective right to participate, does this not require balancing jobs for empowerment? If some people sweep floors all week, year in and year out, while others review new technological options and attend planning meetings all week, year in and year out, is it realistic to believe they have equal opportunity to participate in firm decisions simply because they each have one vote in the worker council? Proponents of participatory economics believe that taking participation seriously requires balancing jobs for empowerment, just as taking equity seriously requires balancing jobs for desirability. This does not mean everyone must do everything, nor an end to specialization. Each individual will still do a small number of tasks, but some of them will be more enjoyable and some less, and some will be more empowering and some less.

Effort, or sacrifice, is rewarded in a participatory economy because any other system of compensation is unfair. In capitalism people are rewarded according to the value of the contribution of the productive capital they own as well as the value of the contribution of their labor. This means in capitalism a Rockefeller heir who inherits large amounts of productive capital but never works a day in his or her life enjoys an income hundreds of times greater than that of a skilled brain surgeon. In market socialism "capitalist injustice" may be eliminated, but people would still be rewarded according to the market value of the contribution of their labor. Since the market value of the services of a skilled brain surgeon will be many times greater than the market value of the services of a garbage collector no matter how hard and well the garbage collector works, remuneration will be unjust in market socialism as well. Only if people are rewarded according to sacrifices they make will the distribution of burdens and benefits in the economy be equitable. Only if someone works longer or harder, or at more dangerous, strenuous, or unpleasant tasks, does economic justice require greater remuneration. Unlike capitalism or market socialism, a participatory economy rewards people according to the effort, or sacrifice they make in work as determined by a committee of their coworkers according to procedures established by each worker council for itself.

Consumption: Every individual, family, or living unit belongs to a neighborhood consumption council. Each neighborhood council belongs to a federation of neighborhood councils the size of a precinct. Each precinct federation belongs to a city ward, or rural county federation. Each ward belongs to a city consumption council, each city and county council belongs to a state council, and each state council belongs to the national consumption council. The major reason for "nesting" consumer councils into ever larger federations is to allow for the fact that different kinds of consumption affect different numbers of people. Some decisions affect only local residents, while others affect all who live in a city, county, state, or nation. Failure to arrange for all those affected by consumption activities to participate in choosing them not only implies a loss of self-management, but, if the preferences of some who are affected by a choice are disregarded or misrepresented, it also implies a loss of efficiency as well. One of the serious liabilities of market systems is their systematic failure to allow for expression of desires for social consumption on an equal footing with desires for private consumption. Having different levels of consumer federations participate on an equal footing with individual worker and neighborhood councils in the planning procedure described below prevents this bias from occurring in a participatory economy.

Individual members of neighborhood councils present their consumption requests accompanied by the effort ratings they receive from their co-workers. Using opportunity costs generated by the participatory planning process described below, the social cost of each consumption proposal is calculated to determine if the cost to others of a person's consumption request is commensurate with the sacrifices he or she made for the benefit of others in work. While no consumption request justified by a work effort rating can be denied by a neighborhood consumption council, neighbors can express their opinion that a request is unwise, and neighborhood councils can also approve requests on the basis of need in addition to merit.

Participatory Planning: The participants in the participatory planning procedure are the worker councils and federations, the consumer councils and federations, and an Iteration Facilitation Board (IFB). Conceptually, the planning procedure is quite simple. (1) The IFB announces current estimates of the social opportunity costs for all goods, resources, categories of labor, and capital stocks. (2) Consumer councils and federations respond with consumption proposals. Worker councils and federations respond with production proposals listing the outputs they propose to make and the inputs they need to make them. (3) The IFB then calculates the excess demand or supply for each final good and service, capital good, natural resource, and category of labor, and adjusts the estimate of the opportunity cost for the good up, or down, in light of the excess demand or supply. (4) Using the new estimates of opportunity costs, consumer and worker councils and federations revise and resubmit their proposals. Individual worker and consumer councils must continue to revise their proposals until they submit one that is accepted by the other councils. The planning process continues until there are no longer excess demands for any goods, any categories of labor, any primary inputs, or any capital stocks -- in other words, until a feasible plan is reached.

The IFB does not dictate what workers or consumers can do. The IFB bears no resemblance to GOSPLAN in the former Soviet Union which was a central planning bureaucracy that did have power over who would produce what, and how they would produce it. In participatory planning workers and consumers propose and revise their own activities in a process that reveals the costs and benefits of their proposals for others. Not only does each worker and consumer council make its own initial proposal, they are responsible for revising their own proposals as well. The planning procedure is designed to make it clear when proposals are inefficient or unfair, and other workers and consumer councils can disapprove of proposals when they are unfair or inefficient. However, revisions of individual proposals are entirely up to each individual worker and consumer council. This aspect of the participatory planning procedure distinguishes it from all other planning models, and is a critical means of providing workers and consumers with the opportunity for self-management. Participatory planning gives individual groups of workers and consumers power over their own activities. They are only constrained by the legitimate interests of others whom they affect. As long as what a group proposes to do is fair to others and does not misuse scarce productive resources that belong to all, it will be approved by the other worker and consumer councils because it benefits them to do so.

The participatory planning procedure protects the environment as no other system ever has. Federations of all affected by a particular pollutant are empowered in the participatory planning process to limit emissions to levels they deem desirable. A major liability of market economies is that because pollution is what economists call a "negative externality," i.e. pollution adversely affects those who are "external" to the market transaction, market economies permit much more pollution than is efficient even by the dubious standards of mainstream economics. The participatory planning procedure, on the other hand, guarantees that pollution will never be permitted unless those adversely affected feel the positive effects of permitting an activity that generates pollution as a by-product outweigh the negative effects of the pollution on themselves and the environment. Moreover, the participatory planning procedure generates reliable quantitative estimates of the costs of pollution and benefits of environmental protection whereas markets generate no quantitative estimates whatsoever, giving rise to the need for makeshift surveys in market economies that polluters and environmentalists argue over endlessly.

In brief, a participatory economy is not only feasible, it is the best way to secure economic justice and democracy while protecting the environment.

MR: What is the relationship between capitalism and war?

RH: This question has long been debated. Many Marxists argued that once capitalism became the dominant economic system in the world, it also became the root cause of war in the modern era: "Capitalism means imperialism and imperialism means war. Eliminate capitalism and you will eliminate imperialism and war." I have always believed this is too simplistic. I believe capitalism does drive societies to war in a number of different ways that are important to understand, and I believe achieving world peace will remain difficult, if not impossible, until we replace the economics of competition and greed with the economics of equitable cooperation. But the roots of war run deeper than economic dynamics alone and replacing capitalism will not guarantee world peace.

Having said this, it is important to understand how capitalism contributes to war. Capitalism legitimates the pursuit of greed through power. Capitalism drives corporations to expand their access to sources of raw materials and cheap labor. Capitalism drives corporations to seek customers overseas. And capitalism grants these same corporations ample means to influence those who guide a nation's foreign policy. Capitalism concentrates economic wealth and power in the hands of large corporations, permits these corporations to own and control the major media, and allows these corporations to use all their wealth and power to ply politicians to act in their interests. This has proven to be a disastrous recipe time and time again, leading the governments of many capitalist countries to pursue imperial foreign policies that serve the interests of their major corporations not only at the expense of the citizens of the countries falling under their dominion, but also at the expense of a majority of their own citizens who shoulder the lion's share of the costs of empire and receive little of the benefits.

But it would be a mistake to reduce the logic of empire to economic calculus alone. Many who fight in imperial wars do so because they believe their country is threatened. Many who fight believe they are helping those whose country they invade and occupy. Many who fight do so because they believe those they kill or subjugate are racially inferior to themselves. Many who fight believe there must always be wars and warriors, and being a warrior is part of what it means to be a man. And finally, many who fight, or who work in the military industrial complex, do so because they have few alternatives and that is where jobs are to be found. In other words, imperial war is as much the result of misguided patriotism, racism, sexism, militarism, and individual self-preservation as it is the result of corporate self-interest.

MR: How can peace movements impact economies governed by competition and greed? Why have peace movements thus far not been able to end war?

RH: Peace movements cannot stand idly by and wait for the economics of competition and greed to be replaced by the economics of equitable cooperation. Peace movements must rage against war and all its causes in societies waging unjust wars, which are most often societies who also practice the economics of competition and greed. This means one job of the peace movement is to dispel the myth that empire benefits the average citizen. It is pointless to deny that there are material benefits of empire. But it is usually the case that the distribution of the benefits and costs of empire is such that, on balance, ordinary citizens are worse off. Moreover, the dynamics of empire invariably shift the internal balance of power further in favor of the ruling elite. So it is important for peace movements to explain that an accurate material calculus reveals that ordinary people are usually worse off and further disempowered when their governments pursue imperial ambitions.

However, peace movements should never make this material calculus their major argument against empire. It is the first responsibility of citizens to prevent a government that purports to speak for them from engaging in imperial policies because imperialism is wrong. It is wrong to subvert the sovereignty of other nations. It is wrong to intervene in the domestic affairs of other countries -- undermining regimes that strive for sovereignty and propping up regimes that acquiesce to domination. It is wrong to use military, economic, and political power to seize the lion's share of the benefits from international investment and trade from less developed countries. Moreover, empires never last forever, and chickens always come home to roost. And we can all live much better in a world of peaceful coexistence ruled by international law where the benefits of international economic cooperation are shared equitably than we do in a world of rising and falling empires.

There is no reason to believe ridding the world of war is an easy task. Humans have waged war on one another from time immemorial. As we become more numerous, and our weaponry becomes more deadly and environmentally destructive, the consequences of failing to kick this uniquely human habit become ever more frightening. But we are a species capable of reason and we can and do learn from our mistakes. Nor is the peace movement without its troops. Phyllis Bennis, who heads a team of anti-war activists at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC, likes to point out that there are still two super powers in the world today. The Soviet Union is gone, but the United States is not a super power without a world-class challenger. The world peace movement is the other super power, and we should never underestimate our potential and our power.

MR: What insights can Participatory Economics offer those working within the anti-war movement? Does it offer any strategies in terms of movement building and achieving world peace?

RH: Participatory Economics is based on the conviction that people can manage their own economic activities and cooperate with others efficiently through fair and democratic procedures. Moreover, when we do so we can be more effective than when a small elite tells the vast majority of us what to do. That lesson applies to the peace movement as well. The peace movement is made up of millions of individuals and tens of thousands of peace groups and organizations. When peace groups initiate their own activities, and when peace groups form organizations and coalitions governed by participatory, democratic procedures to coordinate their efforts, the peace movement is more powerful. But this is not the way most people are used to working together. People are used to hierarchy. People come into the peace movement with racist and sexist attitudes whether or not they realize it. Just as participatory economics builds institutional correctives for habits that are socially dysfunctional -- like balanced job complexes and minority and women's caucuses -- the peace movement also needs to develop correctives for predictable weaknesses people bring with them from their life experiences outside the movement.

Marla Renn lives in Vancouver and is a member of the Vancouver Participatory Economics Collective. For more information visit the collective at