The Participatory Society

January 29, 2012 in Economics, Political Theory, Politics by JAMC

How do you want to live?
In many ways, all politics boil down to this. Often in life we find ourselves having to learn to live with the gap between our answer to that question and the reality of world we see around us. The difference between the real and the imagined being small or large has a great bearing on the sum total of human happiness that we can hope to experience during our brief tenure on this earth as sentient beings.

It is my firm belief that one of mankind’s primary instincts – once the animistic desires for food, shelter, affection and security are met – is to strive towards narrowing this gap between the observed and the imagined. The human species is unique in the known universe as being the sole genus for whom flexible thought, not arbitrary evolution, is the primary driving force determining the nature of our existence. The story of human civilisation itself is the story of ideas made real.

This is why political negativity, cynicism or attempts to preserve civilisation at a particular temporal point, no matter how elaborately deployed, are always overcome. In living memory the apex of this triumphal conceit came in 1992 when Francis Fukuyama proclaimed that with the established dominion of liberal democracy, history itself had ended. No-one alive between 1992 and today can possibly defend this premise. Such attempts at denying the ideas and idealism within is an alienation from our inherent desire to build and inhabit a better world – it is an alienation from our most basic nature as human beings.

History would teach us that every so often we enter periods when our strategies for coping with the gap between the world we inhabit and the world we aspire towards aren’t forthcoming – or the true scale of the gap, previously concealed, is revealed to us in a stark awakening. These periods tend to produce great conflict and great upheaval. Looking at our recent history, the post-war consensus was shattered in the late 1970s with the breakdown of traditional industrial relations. The free-market consensus that followed it is now itself breaking down as a consequence of the rampant over-speculation that is intrinsic to accumulative economic systems like ours.

In tandem with humanity’s ability to conceive of better and brighter existences than those it currently inhabits, we also have the (very useful) ability to envisage the opposite. The fearful spectre of dystopia is as much a part of the story of human civilisation as the desire to construct and improve. Recurring themes in our culture include the post-apocalyptic civilisation as a bi-product of immense human conflict (Book of Eli, The Omega Man), the conquest of earth by more advanced beings from elsewhere in the universe (Independence Day, Cloverfield, War of the Worlds) and the human race being attacked or enslaved when its latest invention or experiment turns against its creators (Terminator, Jurassic Park, Blade Runner, Frankenstein).

It is the last of these that I’d like to draw your attention to. The cultural expression of our fears regarding our own creations is usually expressed in a predictable demonisation of new and frightening technologies like cloning, genetic modification, computers, robotics or even electricity if you go back far enough in cinematic or literary history (the dark satanic mills…?). Quaint though these concerns often turn out to be in the long run, I cannot help but think that one creation in particular has been overlooked for the “creation turns on the creator” movie treatment because it has been hiding in plain sight for so long and come to dominate virtually every aspect of our existence.

Viewed from a particular historical perspective, it is possible to argue that we’ve been locked in a war for centuries (maybe millennia) for control of our own destiny as a species with one of our earliest and most enduring inventions – money. History would also suggest why this foe is so potent – because it is in many ways a mathematical mirror-image of ourselves in that it’s basic raison d’étre is to band together (accumulate) and gain the maximum level of control possible over its own destiny (dominate). This foe is, for want of a better expression, a slippery fucker that knows us better than we know ourselves and knows all our best moves.

How to win the war isn’t difficult to figure out – it’s simple divide and rule. The more equitably capital is divided between humans, the weaker it becomes. Capitalism, as an ideology (enemy propaganda!) that exists purely to perpetuate capital, exclusively advocates capital’s never-ending accumulation as a positive end in of itself – positive not for the capital (it never enters the fray as an active combatant on its own behalf), but positive for mankind. And there is little doubt that the most able and willing human agents of the enemy in this war are handsomely rewarded for their treasonous activities. It is however a very different existence for those of us fighting in the trenches for survival, regardless of which side we think we fight for.

But hold on a minute, lets not get carried away here. We may be able to win a war against money but what would happen after such a victory? Humans have a superb run of form when it comes to exterminating things, but I’m sure you are currently grappling with the puzzle of how society would work without some sort of currency underpinning it. The truth of the matter is… it can’t. We cannot function as a civilisation without some sort of mechanism for the transfer of abstract value between different parties (to give money its full name). Too many of our later social and economic inventions are dependent upon it.

After the second world war, the allied leaders realised they needed their former enemies to turn into trade partners for a prosperous future. Similarly, in the long run humans and money must learn to work together rather than compete as rivals for control of the planet. As a species, we undoubtedly have some kind of ultra-complicated love/hate/mindfuck relationship with money, but the only realistic prospect for a lasting peace between the flawed creators and the uppity creation is symbiosis.

The itch we can’t seem to scratch
Money, much like microscopic yeast, serves many fundamental purposes that are absolutely crucial to mankind. One yeast cell on its own is of minimal utility – all it can do is convert simple sugars into carbon dioxide and ethanol on a molecular level. Billions of yeast cells working in unison under the right conditions can produce enough carbon dioxide to make a loaf of bread rise in an oven. The same quantity of yeast under slightly different conditions can convert barley sugars into beer.

Bread and beer were the staple of the Roman Army. When the Romans scored a great military victory on some long-forgotten battlefield, in the strict physicalist sense they should have emblazoned their triumphal arches with the phrase “It woz the yeast wot won it”. In the same way, money and it’s intrinsic behaviours are equally responsible for a large number of human endeavours and accomplishments – some positive, some negative. We often think of episodes in human history like the recent Iraq war or the moon landings as the result of grand (and more often than not incorrect) decisions made by human leaders driven by human interests. However, the underlying financial motivations and contributions that underpin both these events – and countless others – are not hard to deduce.

When harnessing the abilities of yeast, every aspect of the environment in which the yeast is put to a productive purpose is precisely controlled by man. It’s man’s intervention, or lack of, that determines whether the end result of yeast’s presence is a fine ale or vaginal thrush. If we are to obtain similar positive social results as a product of utilising money’s intrinsic behaviours, we must begin to think of money in the same way we think of yeast – as a wild power requiring care and control to harness for purposes we agree are worthwhile. The non-interventionist “hands-off” stance we’ve taken towards the accumulation of capital in recent years has resulted in the economic equivalent of an embarrassing and expensive prescription for Canesten Duo.

For the baker, the task of harnessing the yeast’s abilities is simplified by the fact that the individual craftsman retains complete unity of command and control over the process at hand. The yeast is only “answerable” to the baker for it’s activity, and the baker is at complete liberty to discard any yeast samples or strains that he considers to be a poor performer at delivering the characteristics he desires in the finished loaf. An arbitrary, autocratic approach to management of money on a society-wide scale is not really an attractive prospect – so here I think I must part ways with this already overstretched analogy.

The late great Scottish trade unionist Jimmy Reid (of UCS lock-in fame) once remarked “Government by the people for the people becomes meaningless unless it includes major economic decision-making by the people for the people” – and he was right. He was also hinting indirectly at a much more profound principle, which in it’s simplest terms can be expressed thus;

If a society is to be considered truly democratic, all decisions that have a public impact beyond the individual must include the public in the decision making process on a democratic basis. While there is in every case a legitimate question of scope, the ability to participate in the decision-making process must not be based on entitlement via ownership – because that’s how man’s dominion over his fellow man is accomplished and re-enforced. The 8,000 year old war on money will only be won once we take this simple idea to heart as a species. Once we do, our ranks will be united as never before.

It’s down to us Jack
Once again we find ourselves having to re-examine the moral validity of a situation whereby one man, or small clique of men, may wield unquestioned executive power over their fellow humans on the basis of ownership. This sorry state of affairs has been the case throughout most, if not all, our recorded history. Not so long ago the same underlying concept underpinned the system of legal slavery that permitted one human to degrade another to the point where their very existence, not just their labour, was considered a trade-able commodity to be bought and sold on an open market.

We may feel very proud of the fact that our recent ancestors eradicated the legal instruments that permitted the direct ownership of one man by another, but if we allow the legal statutes that permit one man to exclusively own and control the very means and resources by which another man sustains himself, without any modicum of accountability or involvement by the dependent party in how those means and resources are deployed, how far have we really advanced? When the slaves were “freed” in the deep south, a great many just showed up for work the next day – the only difference being an expectation in law that the money once set aside by the slave owner to feed and clothe the slaves he owned was now used to pay the ex-slave’s wages. Everything must change in order for everything to stay the same.

In addition to addressing the fundamental question of ownership, we also need to revisit the idea of what is generally considered “public” in economics, and what is considered “private”. It cannot stand to reason that decisions can be made by a lone individual (or small group of individuals) which have a direct impact on a workforce of 10,000 people purely on the rationale that the shares they use to control the organisation are considered “private” property. For this reason, I include “private” companies within the public sphere as they depend on the effort of (and collaboration between) multiple individuals turned towards a common purpose.

Currently, the core purpose of self-enrichment for the owners is defined by the company’s private shareholders and implemented by proxy through a chief executive officer. By contrast, the economic decisions I consider to be in the “private” sphere are those currently considered to be matters of “personal finance” – i.e. those that affect the individual and their immediate family. The extreme corporate excesses and syphoning of the past decade have led us to the position whereby we feel that the question of “who earns what and why” is a legitimate matter of public debate – how each individual spends what they’ve earned as a result of their labouring is not.

The true issue here is how to make money accountable to something other than itself, or merely to human agents that act on its behalf. Succumbing to this reflex is to concede control of society’s economic destiny bit-by-bit to vested interests – and deliver it into the hands of the old foe. The disastrous experiments with centralised bureaucratic planning in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and elsewhere throughout the second half of the 20th century would suggest that making capital accountable only to a small group of individuals occupying the highest-ranking positions of state – regardless of whether they’re elected and regardless of the interests they claim to represent – is probably not a very good idea.

Vesting such large quantities of monetary power and control into the hands of such a small number of individuals simply opens the way for the rampant self-interest of those individuals to come to the fore. Both the nepotistic crony-ism of the old eastern bloc and the rampant slash-n-burn pocket-stuffing of global capitalism’s übermensch bare witness to this simple principle. The old maxim of absolute power corrupting absolutely remains as valid as when it was first coined. There is in practice no valid method by which responsible administration of an economy in the interests of the many can be undertaken by representatives of the people without the inevitability of vested interests eventually overwhelming the entire system. This is a job for every last man jack of us, and we shirk it at our peril.

Economic growth has stalled – politicians claim that everything will be OK in a few years once it starts again. They are lying. The reason growth remains in limbo, bouncing a few decimal places around zero percent is because of one simple economic truth that underpins the entire financial predicament of the western world and the people that inhabit it – the ability of the capital to absorb and accumulate newly-created economic wealth now outstrips the ability of the real economy to produce it.

Even if by some economic miracle growth were to return at the lauded rate of 3% annually, all it represents is further speculation on the basis of absorbing yet more newly created wealth out of the real economy at some future point. Those labouring away to feed the financial machine’s insatiable appetite for return on investment stand to see only that proportion of it which is necessary to either keep them alive and able to work, or in the case of highly-skilled financial agents to prevent them jumping ship to further the interests of rival capital.

We face three choices: The first is an indefinite paralysis (zero growth) due to a lack of action or ideas. The second is renewed economic activity (and therefore growth) based on a newly-discovered mechanism of transferring even more capital from the poor to the wealthy, resulting in a kind of credit-serfdom. It is possible to make a compelling case that we’re already a long way down this road. The third and final option is a gradual reversal of the skewed distribution of wealth within society, or rather a “recapitalising” of the public based on the shared ownership of economic output – instead of the minority pocketing the profits of the majority’s labour for themselves and further skewing the distribution of wealth in their favour.

Even if we were to accomplish economic growth by one of these methods, growth alone doesn’t really solve very much – it just measures the sum total size of the economy and provides no information as to what is happening within it. It makes no mention of how the nation’s economic output is being distributed, and whether that distribution looks healthy, unhealthy or downright dangerous. The Gini Coefficient, a measure of income distribution within a nation, must become as important a measure of our society’s economic well-being as the arbitrary productivity statistics.

How to get out of the mire
I propose the following measures as a means of dragging ourselves out of the hitherto described mess we find ourselves in.

1. Introduce “Public Trusts”
Create new type of legal entity, the “Public Trust”. This new type of organisation will be specifically designed to ensure that employees retain overall executive control of their workplaces, and that executive authority within each workplace is established by a democratic mandate from the workforce. Public trusts should also be legally compelled to behave in the public interest, and will be accountable to a sovereign body (the “Public Congress”) comprised of democratically elected representatives chosen by all employees of public trusts nationwide. The public congress will be responsible for mutual cooperation and coordination of public trusts in the economic interests of wider society. Legislation should also be introduced that gives employees of private and public limited companies the legal right to ballot the workforce in favour of conversion into a public trust. Conversion would involve the compulsory purchase by employees (as a group) of existing issued shares over time and compensation of the existing shareholders based on a standard valuation formula. Public trusts would also be required to ratify an internal constitution by simple majority of employees that spelt out how the organisation would be administered in the public interest and how it would ensure accountability to employees. Public trusts would technically reside in the public sector but would operate independently of the executive branch of government.

2. Full employment paired with life-long learning
A return to the policy of full employment, whereby the level of unemployment mirrors the number of job vacancies produced by the economy at any given moment, is vital to our economic recovery. The current economic orthodoxy maintains that there is an ideal unemployment rate whereby a small but significant proportion of the population must be made to endure the hellish realities of unemployment in order to provide a disincentive for those in work from “slacking”, thereby inviting unemployment. This crude manipulation technique contributed enormously to the union militancy of the 1970s and early 1980s which feared the loss of any jobs on this basis that the dire consequences were well known. In the days since the unions were smashed, we’ve largely learned to tolerate unacceptably high levels of unemployment by throwing more generous handouts to people out of work in some kind of sick gesture of repressed guilt. In truth, this persistent situation of unproductive scapegoating is part of the dead-weight that holds our society and economy back. It must stop. The only way to retreat from this bizarre position is to acknowledge the fundamental human need to obtain productive work, in tandem with the needs of a modern economy to constantly innovate. Promoting full employment in tandem with a guarantee that any individual no longer required by the economy because of technical obsolescence should be re-trained and put back into employment with the requisite skills to continue as a productive member of society and contributor to the nation’s economic output. This would require both additional education and work placement. No society can hope to remain an economic and technological front-runner in the 21st century if educational opportunities remain rationed or restricted on the basis of ability to pay. The general availability of free, quality educational courses for all ages must become an unquestionable cornerstone of our economic strength, and technological progress must no longer equate to a fear of obsolescence if we are to ensure that the economy satisfies the basic human need for work.

3. Public sector leading from the front
We must get used to the idea of the public sector as the employer, investor and innovator of last resort in our never-ending fight against unemployment, economic stagnation and technological retardation. Doing nothing or being resigned to the defeatist idea that all intervention will only make matters worse while economic collapse eats away at the very fabric of society are not an option.

The above measures would put us a good way down the road towards a genuinely inclusive, participatory society – the kind of society in which the innate abilities of each individual are not thwarted by the rationing of opportunity, prevalence of vested self-interests and perpetuation of rigid hierarchies. A society who’s chief character is developed and defined by the strength and merit of its citizens’ best ideas made reality through partnership and co-operation. These forces, once properly set in motion, are more potent than any crude attempt at deriving greater output for a privileged minority via greater intimidation of the disenfranchised majority.

There is a formal definition of Participism as a political and economic creed as defined by the work of Michael Albert, Robin Hahnel, Stephen Shalom and others. That is not what I am arguing for in this piece. It is too prescriptive and crystalline to be of any practical value to our current predicament. I am proposing something that – while inspired by many of the same impulses and sharing many of the same objectives – is far looser, more flexible and perhaps critically a lot simpler in its implementation.