Chris Spannos interviewed by
August 10, 2006
BS: How do you remember the formation of the Vancouver Parecon Collective? What role did you play?
CS: Well, our collective formed from happenstance at first then it quickly became a self-conscious effort to organize. I had been talking to many people for years about my interest in Parecon -- activists, organizers and others -- and one day when checking my email I came across a message from a guy named Matt Grinder who had a link to ZNet and his personal web site at the bottom of his message. For whatever reason, I went to his homepage and discovered that he had a very strong interest in Parecon. He had given a few talks at his university, the University of British Columbia (UBC), had formed a reading group and had even developed a power point presentation for his talks. I immediately wrote Matt expressing my interest in parecon and we met for coffee to start brainstorming. Very soon afterwards Matt was approached to do a talk for students at Simon Fraser University (SFU). We quickly mobilized to re-write his power point, develop flyers, a web site, mailing lists, etc.
That first talk we announced our collective. It was a really memorable night for me because it was dark and raining very heavily outside; there were other activist events happening all over town -- I wasn't expecting very many people. We had a turn out of 12-15 people with very lively discussion. We had people sign up to our mailing list and take our flyers so felt very satisfied with the outcome of the evening.
After that there was the first screenings of the film "The Corporation"; we set up a table in the theatre lobby to leaflet and sign people up to our mailing list. We did this for about four days. We wanted to provide people an alternative to corporate globalization, capitalism and corporate hierarchies. This event gave us access to literally thousands of people looking for an alternative. We were given this exposure on a silver platter and we took advantage of it. All this was a good foundation for our initial outreach, following events and publicity.
Personally, I think I played a very enthusiastic role as I'm generally a hopeful and optimistic person, since I think there's reason to be. I remain enthusiastic because there's a lot of potential for parecon advocacy and implementation. People have been coming 'out of the wood work' so to speak, and there's been great interest in parecon. But then again, why wouldn't there be?
BS: What first got you "into" Parecon? What sparked your interest?
CS: I remember first moving from California to Canada and working in my grandmother's embroidery factory. I was an embroidery machine operator for about six to seven years. As I became better at the job I had a little more spare time to read. At this point I'd been a regular user of ZNet and had a subscription to ZMagazine. I'd always liked Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel's visionary thinking - they gave me hope. I found my introductory contact with the parecon model through ZMag/Net inspiring, so I began to get Michael's and Robin's books. First, "Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the 21st Century", then "What is to be Un-Done", Michael's first book. After that I read "Un-Orthodox Marxism" and then the two volumes "Marxism and Socialist Theory" and "Socialism Today and Tomorrow", and many others. During this period I also picked up Stephen Shalom's "Socialist Visions", an excellent and still very valuable book. I did all this reading and studying in any spare time I had both off the job and while working at the factory and at other jobs. When I read about balanced job complexes, self-management, solidarity, equity, diversity and remuneration for effort and sacrifice I would feel miserable working in my repetitive, dull job, taking orders and constantly feeling tension around how best to manage my time at work. And then it struck me hard that, if I was feeling this way about my job, millions of other workers must also feel this way; successive generations have probably experienced the same thing spanning whole centuries. The vast majority of people, through their roles as workers, in workplaces organized as corporate hierarchies, in the past, present and foreseeable future, have been robbed of their human ability and creative capacities to self-manage their own lives; not only in work places, but also in the institutions of society more broadly. We don't have decision making input in proportion to how we're affected, we don't have work place solidarity and there continues to be class rule of workers by the coordinator and capitalist classes who own and control society's productive assets. In capitalism, advertising conveys false information, the institutional roles of buyer and seller in the market place pit people against one another and these same markets hide information about the social costs and consequences of our economic choices. The societal effect is warped preferences -- our needs, desires and wants. Over all there's a bias towards production and consumption of private goods rather than public goods. Capitalism warps society and human development and has given most of us a bum deal.
In "The Political Economy of Participatory Economics", (Princeton University Press, 1991), Albert and Hahnel write "We seek an economy that distributes the duties and benefits of social labor fairly; that involves members in decision making in proportion to the degree they are affected by outcomes; that develops human potentials for creativity, cooperation, and empathy; and that utilizes human and natural resources efficiently in the world we really inhabit, an ecological world filled with complicated mixtures of public and private effects. In short, we want an equitable, efficient, economy that promotes self-management, solidarity, and variety under real world conditions."
This is what originally inspired me to commit to organizing for a participatory economy. But there were two other defining experiences down the road that also proved influential in my commitment. The first has to do with my experience at Simon Fraser University (SFU). I'm not a university student, but I've sat in on two whole semesters at SFU. One course on Marxist economics and before that another one on 'Comparative Studies in Alternatives to Capitalism'. The professor for this last one is a renowned Marxists economist who's currently doing some interesting work down in Venezuela. For both of these courses I'd read all the material, wrote all the papers, went to all the tutorials and wrote the final exams. I went into this emersion of Marxism holding onto the parecon model and I came out of it unshaken and even more confident that parecon was the leading candidate for a future post-capitalist economy, providing insights and ways forward where the others failed.
The other influential experience was my joining a radical radio collective in 1999 to produce current affairs radio at our local Coop Radio. I was a radio baby then and the veterans of the show had developed a very sophisticated collective model with corresponding decision making procedures. I was able to contrast this with the work I was doing in the embroidery factory and get further insights into how my work place ideal of a balanced job complex would actually operate. My experience with this radio collective has been the closest thing to my ideal ever since and is where I received the core of my political education. But with the Vancouver Parecon Collective, we're now working towards placing our ideals into practice in a more specific and collectively self-conscious way than I've ever experienced before. In fact we have some internal collective skill building workshops coming up for media work, web design, writing, and giving talks. We're also having a retreat to not only reflect on the work we've been doing but also to look towards balancing that work more in line with what we strive for.
But, going back to your question, for all the above reasons I became interested and committed to parecon and organizing for its realization. I think others should join the efforts too, because, well… I really don't see any other option. I mean, if there are other options we should explore, debate, share and compare them. If they're better than what parecon offers, if they achieve more solidarity, self-management, equity, diversity and efficiency than parecon, then I'll point my efforts toward advocating that system. But so far, I've neither heard nor seen of any other such alternative economic model and the need for such a model is more necessary than ever. Parecon is waiting in the wings and we're trying to act on it.
BS: What other groups were you working with when you helped form/joined the Vancouver Parecon Collective (VPC)?
CS: I was and still remain involved in a variety of different groups and communities. I've gotten together with many different folks at different times to organize anti-corporate globalization, alternative media, anti-capitalist and antiwar events. I've worked through our local cooperative radio station on various committees and continue to produce radio there. I've volunteered at a local cinematheque, anarchist book stores, worked in cooperative book stores, etc. I've spent the past couple years organizing with the main anti-war coalition in Vancouver. My paid work as a social service worker in Vancouver's down town east side has also put me in contact with many harm reduction, mental health advocacy and anti-poverty groups, etc.
BS: What were some of the groups/organizations/institutions (including other activist groups, NGOs, specific media organizations, schools, political parties etc), that the VPC networked with?
CS: We've networked with many groups, folks in local anti-capitalist groups helped provide space for us to get the word out about parecon. A local grass roots video collective has helped us by broadcasting some of our presentations across lower mainland TV's three different times. That gave us access to an audience that we had never imagined we'd reach. Students at various universities helped out by providing forums, space and support. Really, many, many people have contributed to our efforts to advocate parecon. Many people and groups provided us space and resources, used their own medium to deliver our message or actually helped in our on the ground organizing efforts.
I do a little volunteering with ZNet so they've been very helpful and supportive of our efforts too. For that we're very grateful and continue to be. Michael and Robin have helped in numerous ways; just being available for us to ask questions and bounce ideas off them has been an invaluable source of insight and guidance into our organizing.
But going beyond the dynamic of "networking" and looking more closely at group and institutional relationships, I think there's something a little deeper going on here. We've had a variety of people come, go and stay in the Vancouver Parecon Collective. Members of our group have been and are teachers, social service workers, computer programmers, book store clerks, organic food delivery drivers, political party members, men, women, parents, anarchists, vegans, queers, anti-war organizers, media activists, etc. We contribute in a variety of ways to various organizations, institutions, groups and communities. It's more than networking because, just as many people have helped us, we're playing an active role, not only in upholding the commitments and responsibilities that we have among these various constituencies, but we're seeking their active success. Sure networking happens, but there are deeper interdependent relationships happening at the same time that I think are based on human solidarity and mutual aid; a mutual interest and compassion for the well being, sustainability and advancement of the organizations, institutions, communities and groups that we participate in. I think this has contributed to both the growth and effectiveness of the Vancouver Parecon Collective, just as we, as a collective and as individuals, have contributed to the growth and effectiveness of other complimentary movements. It's this kind of accommodating and complimentary organizing that I think makes our organizing efforts sustainable and effective for the long-term and also contributes to the possibility of our movements achieving their goals for social change.
BS: Once you were part of the group, did it manage to do what you hoped it
would? Please expand by adding what barriers (if any) there ended up being between your vision for the group and what it did manage to accomplish.
CS: After joining a group that advocates for a participatory economy, my hope was to advocate parecon effectively, support already existing parecon projects, contribute to starting new ones and help create and solidify relationships between them all. Beyond that I hope that we can apply both reformist and revolutionary strategies to implement parecon in other ways. Obviously, the long term goal is to implement as close to possible an approximation of the parecon model on an ever growing scale and size. Below I'll outline my own hopes for the group, the strategic implications and the barriers to those.
For me, a starting point of parecon organizing is making parecon a visible alternative to capitalism that people can then choose from and join in the effort to organize, wherever they're located. I don't only mean among already existing activist circles, but also reaching out to the mainstream to ever enlarge the movement. I think we've been doing a great job at getting the word out. However, the fact remains that we're a grass roots group. We're not Fox or Time Warner and so we don't have the same resources at our command to touch people in the privacy of their living rooms or in their cars commuting to and from work to inspire organizing and dissent. We have to utilize the resources at our disposal and that means being creative, innovative and strategic, with the minimal means that we have, to overcome barriers. I think we've been doing as best we can and we've being doing a great job so far, especially with the minimal means at our disposal. So, yes, we've been successful in achieving many of our goals and aims and in the context of our limited means, our success has been surprising, hopeful and inspiring. But we have larger goals and aims too, so there's still a long road to travel.
There are other issues though. We want a diverse movement and we still remain a pre-dominantly white male group. This needs to change for our movement building to be successful. We've had some women come and go and many say they were going to get involved but haven't yet. We also have lots of women and non-whites come to our presentations and workshops. But we still need more diversification to balance the gender and race participation in our group. I don't claim to fully understand our shortcoming in this area. But I do think this is partly due to the fact that women and non-whites don't have it as easy as us white guys do, meaning they have other responsibilities and commitments to their personal, family and community lives that take up their time and energy. We don't always have the same life commitments making it easier for us to commit to "extra-curricular activities" like organizing against capitalism, and on average there's probably less of a sacrifice from us in doing so. But that doesn't mean that we should stop doing what we're doing, it means that we have clear challenges to face. In our parecon organizing we need to also address and help alleviate the conditions that make it harder for non-whites and women to participate. We need to make a difference in people's lives today and also develop hopeful strategy and vision seeking to transform the dominant culture, community and kinship institutions which create the conditions for sexism and racism. This is equally as important as organizing for a participatory economy and has to be done if we're to make long lasting progress.
However, another possible reason for our lack of progress on this front has to do with the fact that we haven't really made the effort to do any real outreach into specific communities beyond anti-capitalist or anti-corporate globalization activists. If we had a workshop series, flyers and other information addressing how a participatory economy would affect race and gender relations, and doing so on their race, gender and sexual terms, we may get the results that we've been lacking. But I'm not sure… I really don't know. I do know that discussion of this kind of organizing for us always comes down to time, energy and resources, not necessarily priority, because as mentioned above addressing race and gender is equally as important as economics. The first step for us is finding people who share a common affinity for the parecon model, advocacy and complimentary social change. We've done that and continue to do this kind of work. But can we grow beyond this basic level to begin outreach, education and advocacy into other communities i.e. the union and worker rights and working class movements, women, non-white and queer communities, etc.? You can see how groups as limited in resources as ours could easily overstretch ourselves to the point of complete dissipation, and this is a danger which I'll elaborate on below. So, in doing this kind of organizing, in our current capacity, we have to be very strategic with our energies and resources.
Even if we were to extrapolate away the necessity of focusing on race and gender, the exact same issues and barriers arise when we discuss where to put our energies and resources when engaging in parecon specific organizing. There are still areas that we want to work on that we think are very important, but have been unable to make very much progress in. These areas are the creation of actual parecon projects and institutions to compliment our broader organizing, education and advocacy efforts. In addition, there are strategic matters at stake. We've had on the table for quite some time now the possibility of getting involved in Vancouver's municipal political process. There are some in the collective who would not commit their time and energy to this for concern that entering such a process may co-opt our principles and aspirations, along with many other good reasons. There are others who think it could be a catapult for organizing on a larger scale or to gain easy visibility for our ideas and activism in mainstream media. Aside from the political debates we have about this, I think the issue deep down is that we don't currently have the resources to commit to the political process as a strategy for advocating parecon and at the same time stay engaged in the kind of organizing that we've been doing (or any other kind of organizing for that matter…) We simply don't have the resources. If we did have the resources we'd have conditions allowing the possibility of a diversity of strategy and tactic options within our own collective efforts. Collective members who oppose participation in municipal politics could opt out without compromising the efforts of others in the group who want to go forward with such a plan. Those in the collective who oppose participating in municipal politics could pursue other parecon advocacy routes so that our organizing would embody a diversity of complimentary strategies and tactics - this would be ideal. But, it's not what we're working with. Maybe some of our thinking is a little ambitious and perhaps some of our ideas represent shoes too big for us to fill. But I think we're very rooted in grass roots organizing and so all this is a healthy debate within our collective.
Beyond a healthy internal discussion and debate about strategy, tactics and outreach is a larger issue looming. We're constantly fighting against capitalisms, and as touched on above, race and gender, institutional pressures which our resource problems, and the conditions it imposes, are rooted. We're all volunteering our time and energy to parecon organizing, we don't get paid and there's no material reward. The organizing is dispersed among what our own time and commitments to family, friends and personal interests allow us to do. Organizationally this means we take on personal sacrifices that may not be sustainable for our group in the long run. And even though we may try to share our work equitably, even though we know the importance of outreach to diverse communities, even though we want our organizing to embody a diversity of tactical and strategic approaches, some times our efforts scatter and even dissipate around certain projects and aspirations. In order for us to make our project sustainable, and not only sustainable, but to grow we need to be flexible, innovative and creative. Sometimes our efforts have been overwhelmed by the enormity of redirecting our energies. But other times, and I would say mostly, we are reaffirmed by the responses, outcomes and progress of our efforts. There always seems to be hopeful ways of moving forward with our parecon advocacy and it's promising.
But, finally, let me add one other brief and perhaps more humble explanation for any barriers and limitations to our organizing. We're still a very new group, almost three years old. We've just sprouted and have much potential to grow.
BS: Many groups become big quickly while others stay with a small core and gain peripheral members. Which of these patterns would you say fits the VPC? Why would you say the VPC ended up with such a pattern?
CS: I don't think that either of these characterizations or patterns fit us really. Over the past two years, we've had new members come and go regularly, some remain on the "periphery", but on average we've managed to attract 6-9 members in our collective who've stayed and continue to contribute, and we continue to aim for more growth. But this does raise some issues about the challenges of movement building and some things to overcome, beyond the challenges touched on above.
Organizing for social change is a hard thing to measure and it's never quite clear just how or in what ways we're affecting people. Perhaps we could replicate the "Butterfly Effect", flapping our anti-capitalist wings in Vancouver to cause an economic justice and democracy storm in Washington or Wall St. Perhaps not, but hey you never know! More realistically and more self-consciously, we have to choose our strategies based on the likely consequences of our choices and the potential for further strategic progress. The size of a group may or may not play a part -- one tiny mosquito can be a real pain in the ass if you're locked in the same room together overnight. That said, we want to attract as many people as possible to aspire towards helping implementing a participatory economy. Ultimately we need to think about how many people we'll need to win and how to arouse their participation; this could happen any number of ways. Perhaps our small collective can inspire others around the globe to take up organizing in their own locations. Maybe after a few years some of these groups could form an international organization advocating parecon. From there, things could blossom…
But beyond this issue of size, I think there are two additional issues related to your question and relevant to all Left organizing. The first issue is: once people come to participate, how do we get them to stay? Michael Albert calls this the "Stickiness Problem". Albert says "…think of a person getting more and more involved with progressive ideas and activity. Does this person merge into a growing community of people who make him feel more secure and appreciated? Does she get a growing sense of personal worth and of contribution to something valuable? Does he enjoy a sense of accomplishment? Does she have her needs better met than before? Does his life get better? Does it seem that she is making a contribution to improving others lives, as well?"
That said, the second issue here is identified when you mention peripheral members and is related, I think, to the "stickiness problem". People go to the periphery for different reasons. These reasons may have to do with uncertainty or ambivalence of political commitment (in this case to parecon, or some other group, program or strategy), other reasons may have to do with personal life commitments (maybe a collective member just had a baby or something). The end result, regardless of the reason why people are on the periphery, is that they have one foot in political commitment and one foot out, and they can either be more or less in, or more or less out. The challenge for movements then is to, in various self-managing and solidaritous ways, be as open as possible to this transition from core participant, to peripheral participant, to exiting the group entirely, and finally to making their way back into the fold: we want conditions that cause people to stick to the movement for the long term, but also conditions that allow flexibility for changes in life circumstance or political exploration. So we want a movement that is self-managing where people can come and go as they need to, but one which offers solidarity and affects positive difference in their lives so they repeatedly come back, and hopefully stick, sustaining participation -- as Che said "hasta la victoria siempre" -- until the final victory.
BS: My understanding is that the VPC did not have an aggressive recruitment program. Was there a particular ideological reason or event that lead to this plan?
CS: There are many reasons why people may decide to begin advocating for a parecon. Inspiring attraction to the model or being recruited by a group are two different approaches for outreach. Personally, I hope that people join our efforts because they like the parecon vision and how it informs our organizing and activism today, not because we've told them that it does all these things and they commit even before they've come to their own conclusions about it. We want people to join our efforts for the intrinsic qualities of parecon i.e. balanced job, complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice and decentralized participatory planning. People need to believe in solidarity -- caring about and expressing compassion for one another, in equity - classlessness not class rule, in self-management - decision making power in proportion to the degree one is affected, and in diversity -- that we want divers living arrangements to choose from; people need to believe that these are all good things.
We work very hard to attract and arouse people -- to do outreach and agitate. I mentioned earlier our efforts to "blitz" the opening week of the film "The Corporation". We've also held workshops and info sessions across Vancouver's poor, working and upper class neighborhoods. We write essays, conduct interviews, produce media, etc. We also hope to hold more culture and entertainment events in the future. Okay, yes, some of our efforts have been limited because our resources are limited. But we work very hard and consistently. "Recruitment" is a tricky concept. Our efforts to attract more people are not like military or sports recruitment where people are induced to sign up and commit through incentives such as travel, university, technical or trades training, which are good things to seek out in ones life. Even if we had all those resources at our disposal I wouldn't want anybody to join our efforts if it wasn't for how the parecon model inspires and informs us. I wouldn't want anybody to join up if they only wanted training, experience or education to get them into a better paying job. Our movements do need to be useful for people and especially in their daily lives. Unfortunately our movements do lack in this area, which is another challenge to overcome. But I think it's best if people get on board with parecon organizing because they themselves come to terms with the insights and benefits of the model, and the hope it offers, not because they pay a membership fee and carry a card. If people like the events, workshops, essays, reviews and interviews we do, if they like the insights gained by a pareconish outlook, then, in addition to overcoming the "stickiness problem", they'll join the organizing effort, because they want to, and that will provide the most long-term and sustainable commitment that we can hope for.
BS: Please describe the group's structure. Are there leaders? How do meetings work? Do you use a simple majority vote or consensus? Are roles rotational or set?
CS: We operate as a collective. We try to balance and share responsibilities as best we can. But we're all volunteers. People in the collective have friend, family, school and work commitments, as well as personal and social lives and commitments to other groups. Sustaining our efforts for successful long-term social change demands that we respect those commitments. Sometimes this means that some of us are busy, sometimes for extended periods of time, and others need to take a more active role doing more work than others, but I wouldn't say that there's a leader or leaders. But I do think that there are two dimensions to this issue. One, our ability to collectively and equitably self-manage our own activities is born from the benefits or losses produced and reproduced through capitalisms class segregation. Some of us have had experience, education or work that sometimes enables better participation in the process of organizing for a parecon, i.e. better meeting, social or technical skills. These skills and the opportunity to acquire them need to be balanced. This leads us to the second layer of it; we have to self-consciously and patiently make efforts to balance all these inequities, to counter capitalisms institutional pressures to carry out the hierarchical roles and relationships of coordinators and subordinates. This means that we need to identify which tasks are empowering and which are disempowering and what the burdens and benefits of all those tasks are. We've been doing this on the fly for some time and being patient while chasing this goal. But, as mentioned earlier, we're having a retreat to address this question specifically. We'll be reviewing all our activities, looking at the empowering and disempowering roles and tasks and seeking to balance them out among our collective.
For the actual nuts and bolts of our organizing, we have regular meetings once a month and rotate the responsibilities of "meeting chair/facilitator", minute taker, agenda preparation, etc. At these meetings we discuss and allocate tasks such as handling correspondence, writing essays, book reviews and conducting interviews, organizing info tables, speaking at forums, web design and maintenance, up keep, etc. If whatever we're working on, say talks or interviews for example, demand that we meet throughout the month, we meet as much as necessary.
As to our decision making procedures and practices, I think we operate informally on consensus a lot of the time. There are a couple of on going debates that may come to head in the future in which we may have to choose which decision making procedure to use. Do we use, consensus, one person one vote majority rule i.e. 50 + 1, or do we set the voting threshold higher say to %75 because the outcome of the vote is a key defining decision for our group? Is it possible that we won't all be affected the same way for these decisions and so give some in the collective more say than others? Really, in the past couple years, we've yet to dig our teeth into these processes. We're a very young group and are still figuring out the best way to do these things and what works best for us.
BS: Please identify the main activities the VPC carried out and describe how you remember them being run. For example, if the VPC carried out talks on campus, you might identify how they were organized, how you managed to find space and attract people, what the format was, etc.
CS: As mentioned briefly above, we organize talks, movie showings, write essays and book reviews, conduct radio and print interviews, maintenance our web site, correspond with many people, propose possible actions, etc. Whatever it is, we discuss it as part of our agenda at our regular monthly meeting. From there we assign roles to people or tasks to carry out. These may be anything from who brings the parecon literature and announcement sign up sheets for our info table, to who is going to take photos or record the audio or video for the event, or even who is actually going to give a presentation or do an interview. How people are allocated responsibilities may be decided in a variety of ways and for a variety of different reasons. These mostly have to do with availability of collective members, familiarity or relationships with the person or group we are working with, benefits or burdens of the different tasks and equitable distribution of them; skill or knowledge in a particular area; it may even be an opportunity to learn and educate members of the collective about things that we want to learn or know how to do. There are many layers to it and we do our best to explore them self-consciously in all our organizing.
BS: What are some of the core texts, books, articles, etc that you feel the VPC drew from? What texts defined the group's structure itself? How did new members learn how the group was organized?
CS: I'd have to say that Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel's joint efforts on "Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the 21st Century" has been a key text that I think almost all of us, if not everyone, has read. Beyond that, I personally have read many of their books, if not all. But, I'm not sure what everyone else has read, or how important that is… I'm not sure what texts define the group's structure. Obviously the vision of balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, federated worker and consumer councils and decentralized participatory planning, spelled out over and over again in the numerous books and essays on parecon, inform our organizing. But, aside from defining features, I think the nuances are defined by our own personal experiences and skills we each bring to the group and these also inform how we organize ourselves too….
There's also a very strong educational component to our organizing. We all discuss parecon very clearly for the most part, and the institutional features and values of parecon inform just about everything we do. We ask each other questions and we listen to each other at the talks we give and we read each others essays, interviews and reviews and give each other feedback. I think this feature of our organizing is probably more important than any specific texts.
As for how new members learn about our organizational structure, well, at their first meeting we do a very quick and dirty orientation to our group, the kind of events and organizing we do, our main monthly meeting, our agenda, rotation of meeting facilitator, minute taking, etc. We're always open to doing things more efficiently or effectively so if anyone ever has better ideas on how to do things, than great. After that initial orientation we continue the processes outlined above and we move on from there…
BS: What other movements would you see the Parecon movement fall into? Would you say that the Parecon movement is more focused on distribution of wealth or inequalities of power (assuming there is a difference between the two)?
CS: We're an anti-capitalist group that advocates the replacement of capitalism by a participatory economy. There are both differences and similarities between wealth and power, and parecon helps clarify this and seeks their Just Distribution. But parecon is more than that too. We're opposed to the system of capitalism - to private ownership of productive assets, corporate hierarchies, markets and remuneration for luck, bargaining power or brute force. A participatory economic movement should have strategic aims seeking solidarity, self-management, equity and diversity with other economic actors as well as people and movements in all spheres of life. It's more than "falling into" other movements because economics actually overlaps into and affects other spheres of life, just as other spheres of life overlap into and affect economics - a society's different spheres can compliment, accommodate and "co-reproduce' each other. This means that in seeking social change in one sphere we need to also seek social change in all spheres - social movements are interdependent on each other.
Within the economy, we can identify with many groups who also advocate economic justice and democracy. This means we have affinities with many anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian groups, the anti-corporate globalization movement, the fair trade movement, unionism, the cooperative movement, workers rights and workers democracy movements, etc. The parecon vision is also about empowering consumer self-management through consumer councils and their federations. So we also identify with consumer rights advocates, buyers' cooperatives, ethical purchasing, labeling of GMO foods, organic food production and safe food practices, etc. Really I think anything or anybody affected by allocation of material goods and services for either production or consumption should be able to find an affinity with the parecon model and likewise I think those who advocate for parecon should be able to cooperate with these diverse movements.
But since parecon is only a vision for one sphere of society -- the economy, women, youth, people from the GLBTQ communities, non-whites and environmentalists should realize how parecon's institutional features may improve their lives. Also advocates of parecon can move forward by recognizing how a cultural vision, kinship vision, political vision and environmental vision can compliment and inform our efforts as well. This means that, again, a parecon movement should have strategic aims seeking solidarity, self-management, equity and diversity with people and movements in all spheres of life and that the long-term success of social change in any one of these spheres depends on the long term success of social change in all these spheres. People organizing with a parecon orientation will seek to create movements of solidarity that show compassion, concern and support for struggles against sexism, homo-phobia, racism and exploitation of workers and the environment. It will support internationalist struggles against war and corporate globalization and for national self- determination. A parecon movement is self-managing and participatory meaning it's opposed to class rule within our movements by vanguards, the coordinator class, or capitalists. We seek a balanced division of labor within our movement building where everyone has decision making input in proportion to how they're affected. A parecon based movement seeks equity. We want to lessen the gap between rich and poor. But we also want to recognize the efforts and sacrifices of our movement's participants, making activist efforts sustainable and rewarding, enabling long-term commitment and participation. And a parecon movement embraces diversity of sexualities, genders, races, religions and life styles. This should be the relationship between a parecon movement and other social movements.
BS: Apart from being foremost part of the Parecon movement, would you say the VPC was more of an identity movement (IE, trying to assert a particular identity), a rights movement (IE, worker rights), a utopian movement (trying to create a pocket society more egalitarian than our own), a Socialist movement, an Anarchist movement or a reform movement? Please feel free to mix and match categories or come up with your own. Why that/those?
CS: Fighting for an anti-capitalist identity seems ridiculous… What does an anti-capitalist identity look like? Do they look like Che, Mao, Lenin, Luxemburg, Goldman, Angela Davis or Bobby Seal? Do they look like the working class and what does the working class look like? Sure you can see people who've been affected by these influences, by the way they dress or talk or something. But no one wins any real serious gains in any such effort, conscious or not. What are the benefits of having an "anti-capitalist identity"? Such a person or group of people could never make millions of dollars or become powerful and influential decision makers. They may as well take off their mask and try to climb the corporate hierarchy or kick, scratch, pull and punch their way towards joining the ranks of the capitalist elite, being more effective at gaining wealth, power and privilege. That would seem a more effective use of their time and energy. Why would anybody or any group of people pretend to be anti-capitalist? Any benefits would be petty….
A rights movement? No, I would say that, although we may fight for reforms that advance various rights, say better working conditions, more spending on social welfare programs, etc, we aspire to be a revolutionary movement, not by rhetoric, but by seeking fundamental transformation of societies core defining institutions in all spheres of society: economic, political, cultural, and kinship. We want to replace them with something new and liberating, Parecon is our answer to how we would revolutionize the economic sphere.
Are we utopian? Organizing and struggling to train frogs to play piano or birds to ride bikes is utopian, because birds and frogs will never have the same capacities as human beings. Organizing and struggling to balance work for both desirability and empowerment in the form of balanced job complexes, fighting for remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and fighting for more economic participation in the form of federated workers and consumers councils and decentralized participatory planning; fighting for more solidarity, self-management, equity and diversity is not utopian. It's realistic and honorable and quite frankly human survival might depend on it. Not only that, it's our responsibility to try to change the world for the better since we're aware that there's a better way. You'd have to have good reason to not commit to organizing for a participatory economy. I've never heard one good reason as of yet. So, we have to start somewhere, no matter how small our initial steps are - even if it's, as you call it, a " pocket society". No matter how small the initial experiments are, after refining and improving them, we should try to enlarge the scale and scope of our vision. This could be anything from a grass roots movement, a workplace or factory experiment, community, neighborhood, municipality, region, province or state, a whole country, or a whole world. We have to start somewhere; it's just a simple fact.
A socialist movement? Depends on what you mean by socialism. If you mean the traditional form of coordinator socialism that took place in the former Soviet Union or China, the answer is no. If you mean a form of democratic, participatory or libertarian socialism with balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice and decentralized participatory planning, then the answer is yes. But notice that this answer relies in no way at all on the word "socialism", but does demand that we be clear on what exact institutions we propose when discussing vision.
An anarchist movement? I think parecon embodies many of the ideals of traditional anarchist thought and practice. But I also think parecon goes much further in illuminating other areas economic life, like how to organize work places i.e. balanced job complexes, as well as being more clear on what self-management means: decision making input in proportion that one is affected.
A reform movement? Reforms are a strategic choice, and if we're serious about social change, a necessity. We can use them to struggle for short term goals, and they should be used along the way to improve people's lives today as well as to shape our skills and capacities for the new society, but they are not our final destination. As already mentioned above, we want to fundamentally transform society's core defining institutions - that is the long-term goal. So reforms should be used in ways that lead to ever more gains for our movements that are hard to roll back, because if our social advances are threatened by elite interests, our movements will grow. These gains should lead to fundamental transformation of societies key defining institutions -- victory.
BS: Do you still consider yourself a member of the VPC? Why are you still a member?
CS: I'm an active member. On the one hand I think we have a responsibility for taking on and embracing the task of organizing if we're aware that there's something better. On the other hand it's satisfying and rewarding to be part of a group, and possibly a growing movement, that advocates such a hopeful economic vision. That's why I continue to be an active member.
BS: Where would you like to see the VPC go in the near future? How would you like to see it get there?
CS: I'd like to see us create an institutional project that is a self-conscious experiment on the parecon model; perhaps a radio show or something, I can see that happening. But also, I'd like for us to be able to facilitate communication, coordination and movement building among and between the various parecon projects both in Canada and around the world. I'd also like to see an international organization that advocates parecon. Perhaps the VPC can play a role in getting that started… There are an infinite number of ways to achieve our goals. The first step is confirming that there's interest in any of these projects and that commitment to the effort is there.
BS: Although I have a lot on Parecon already, what are a few of the main aspects that you think separate Parecon from other alternative systems? What are a few strengths and weaknesses (assuming you think it has one or the other)?
CS: There are two issues here. One is about what properties and institutions make various 'alternative systems' different from one another. However this implies we already know which alternatives we are going to discuss and I'll choose a few below. The other issue is how to evaluate them. I also think there's an additional issue which I've mentioned above already in this interview, but I'll raise it again as a conclusion and that's about the point of evaluating these systems and what we do with the results of our comparisons.
Aside from Parecon, there's also Central Planning and Market Socialism, both are also called "Coordinatorism". I'll outline their features below but first I want to explain how to evaluate them.
For evaluation we look to see which system best fosters human potential, and I know this is kind of broad and general so let me explain. In an economy based on class segregation and class rule, corporate hierarchies, central planning or markets, human lives suffer pointlessly due to poverty, war, preventable illnesses, disease, authoritarianism, etc. In other words, we're losing valuable contributors to the richness and quality of human life; scientists, artists, lovers, mothers, fathers, children, musicians, writers, painters, physicists, poets, mechanics and more, are all left from fulfilling their human potential do to institutional arrangements that are poorly suited for human development. In both capitalist and coordinator economies the elite - the top few percentile of the world's populations operating in these economies -- escape most of the human degradation suffered below. I would even argue that those on top are also warped, but in different ways, due to the institutions they function within. So, what we need to look for when evaluating various economic systems is an institutional arrangement that nourishes, compliments and accommodates human development and potential for all. By aiming for a truly classless society we can seek to explore, realize and fulfill the rich human potential that lies dormant in ourselves' and others. If the need to explore this human potential is ignored, despite a desire to do away with capitalism or coordinatorism, the institutional context which may provide the setting for this goal will be overlooked.
More specific criteria for evaluating various alterative economic systems are our values and principles. These values should positively compliment and accommodate the broad goal above of seeking the exploration, realization and fulfillment of human potential. The values we choose are solidarity, equity, self-management, diversity, and for economics we also add efficiency.
Solidarity means that we care about and express compassion for one another. Equity means that people are remunerated for effort and sacrifice. Self-management is decision making in proportion to the degree one is affected. Diversity means that we want a variety of life styles and living arrangements to choose from. Efficiency means that we don't waste the things we care about.
So the more solidarity an economy perpetuates, the better it is; the more equity an economy achieves, the better it is; the more self-management an economy fosters, the better it is; the more diversity an economy embodies the better is, the more efficiency an economy generates the better it is. And this is how we evaluate various economic systems.
Parecon eliminates private ownership or productive assets and replaces corporate divisions of labor with balanced job complexes. It replaces authoritarian decision making with self managed workers and consumers councils, remunerates work for effort and sacrifice and not property, power, or output, and replaces markets (or central planning) with participatory planning.
God and I donoordinator economies, centrally planned and market socialist, have public or state ownership of productive assets, corporate divisions of labor, authoritarian decision making and either retains or replaces markets with central planning as the allocation mechanism. Key here is that coordinators are elevated to the level of primary economic decision makers and power holders.
Coordinators have authority and power over workers. On one hand, they do mostly empowering and conceptual work, accruing material benefits in accord with their elite position. On the other hand, workers below them do mostly rote and executionary work. This matters in so far as the kinds of work we do help shape and inform our skills for decision making and participation directly in our work places as well as in the institutions of society more broadly. The rise of a coordinator class, as central planners and managers, in coordinator economies sent those societies on trajectories over long periods of time, where people developed warped characteristics; where coordinators develop the characteristics of planners and managers and the rest of society develop the characteristics of apathy, combined with greed and competition in cases of market socialism. Human and natural resources are sent on wasteful trajectories determined and assumed by a small elite of coordinators or the institutional blindness of buyers and sellers in the market. These are irreconcilable flaws, not even weaknesses, in these alternative systems. Parecon offers a superior institutional arrangement creating conditions for classlessness, self-management, solidarity, diversity and efficiency. The issue left for us all to decide is what we do with the knowledge that there's a better way to live life. Do we live with that knowledge and not do anything about it, or are we inspired by the hope and potential a parecon vision offers and commit to organizing? We can all imagine the consequences of our choices and our choices are ours to decide.
Chris Spannos is a member of the Vancouver Participatory Economics Collective (vanparecon.resist.ca). Chris is editing two books for AK Press related to Parecon: "Parecon & the Good Society" (2008) and "Hope, Reason & Revolution: Debates and Exchanges with Michael Albert" (2009).
Blake Speers is a Sociology master's student at the University of Victoria. His thesis "Organizing Anarchy : The Politics and Praxis of the Vancouver Parecon Collective" is forthcoming 2006.