October 14, 2008

Print adaptation of "The Montesi Maneuver: A Way To Think About Corporations, Markets, Participatory Economics, and the Environment"

Regarding the future of humanity and of our shared natural environment, there are few threats greater than present-day corporations. One can readily brainstorm many examples of corporations and their horrible environmental actions, like Exxon-Mobil and the role it plays in exacerbating global warming. General Electric and their advocacy of the nuclear industry (including nuclear weapons), and Monsanto and the role it plays in the emergence and horrid consequences of genetically modified organisms.

Proposals for action to oppose this state of near-total corporate dominance tend to be tame compared to the might wielded by these corporate empires. But before successful opposition can happen, successful acts of imagination must happen first, which the political left has been lacking for the most part. In this article, I spell out some new developments in the realm of what might be called "political imagination" and how that can mount a new initiative to hopefully oppose--indeed wipe out--corporate power.

I propose to wipe out corporate power by wiping out the markets in which corporations thrive, using an economic model called "participatory economics Participatory economics, often abbreviated parecon, is a proposed economic system that uses participatory decision making as an economic mechanism to guide the production, consumption and allocation of resources in a given society. " as both the ideological lynchpin to oppose markets and corporations and as a more environmentally sound economy to replace markets and corporations.

A word about corporate power

To oppose corporate power, we must better elucidate the corporate form and its wider operational context. A corporation is a legally defined economic entity with the goal of ever-increasing levels of short-term profit for its shareholders at the expense of everything else--including our shared natural environment. To be sure, not all entities called "corporations" follow or followed this definition, but our focus is those corporations which are serious environmental threats, and which do follow this mandate.

Activists and whole campaigns and movements have been increasingly focusing their energy and efforts against corporations. Yet why, despite this devotion of energy, have these efforts faced limits to their success and a constant threat of rollback? There are a number of reasons, to be sure, but let me posit one crucial and little-considered reason: that the wider economic context in which corporations survive and thrive itself remains in place. That context is the market.

The market connection to corporate power

A market is an institution of buyers and sellers where buyers and sellers are pitted against one another in a zero-sum game -- that is, someone gains at the expense of someone else's loss, and vice-versa. I emphasize the competitive nature of markets in this definition for one main reason: it explains why corporations are at an advantage in a market economy.

It is clearly possible (and common) to succeed in markets by gaining at someone else's expense. And obviously winning is better than losing, in a market or in most any other context. Therefore, it makes sense to always behave so that you would gain at someone else's expense. In other words, it's rational to become a monster, or exhibit behavior like that of a monster, in a market. And if you're not a monster and facing down a monster, one expected response in this context is become a monster in response. Then it becomes a matter of monsters fighting other monsters. And the competitive arms race then begins: The bigger the monster, the better the chance to win.

As Joel Bakan ably demonstrates in his classic book, "The Corporation," a corporation can be thought of as the equivalent of a monster in a market economy, and in the competitive context of markets it makes sense to become a monster to win those competitions. And the bigger the monster, the better the chance to win more of those competitions. This also explains, I think, why markets tend to consolidate--amid wide-spread competition over time, participants are steadily eliminated through buyout or attrition or both. In a fashion reminiscent of a poker tournament, fewer and fewer "players" command more and more "chips" in the "game "--the very definition of concentration.

Markets are frequently lauded as democratic institutions, yet markets over time inevitably become a source of strength for corporations--institutions which are inherently undemocratic. Thus, economic models which incorporate markets are actually and inherently undemocratic and will ultimately fail in their efforts to promote democratic norms. While it's true that provisions can be made to mitigate the negative effects of markets, just as we see in present-day efforts to oppose corporations, corporations thrive in a market setting so corporations have a big reason to fight those provisions, and they also have the muscle thanks to the zero-sum predilection of markets to win a lot of their fights.

Depressing though all of this may sound, it actually is cause for rejoicing since it offers a way forward. If you oppose corporations, oppose markets. If you want to abolish corporations, abolish markets. But you're still left with two key questions: One, if you get rid of markets, what economic model do you put in their place instead to address economic needs? Two, will that replacement help protect the environment?

A modest proposal: Abolish corporate power with parecon In 1991, Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel introduced for the first time an economic model known as participatory economics, "parecon" for short. Like any economy, parecon is concerned with production, consumption and allocation, but it also seeks to do more than that--it also seeks to promote a number of values, including solidarity, efficiency, equity, diversity, self-management, and environmental protection.

There are four main institutions parecon uses to promote these values:

  1. All jobs are balanced for desirability and empowerment

  2. Remuneration is determined by effort and sacrifice in socially valued labor as gauged by one's workmates.

  3. Economic decisions are made by decision-making bodies comprising those who work in a workplace or consume in a residence, where those who are impacted by a decision have decision-making power proportional to the degree they're impacted by that decision.

  4. A participatory planning procedure addresses allocation, where consumption or production plans are submitted, with the help of a facilitation mechanism, to those who are impacted by those plans, and revised if necessary by those who made those plans in a series of rounds based on assorted qualitative and quantitative feedback.

Parecon can also be the economic mechanism to abolish corporations because corporations cannot survive in a participatory economy. A participatory economy is anathema to everything comprising a corporation. Corporations bear job hierarchies, whereas participatory economics requires jobs balanced for desirability and empowerment. Corporations pay unfair wages and make decisions that (often negatively) affect those outside of the corporation with little say in those decisions; parecon, by definition, pays more fairly and provides more fair decision-making power to its participants Corporations are monsters necessary for battle in the competitive realm of markets. Parecon does not use markets, but rather participatory planning for the shared goal of eliminating excess demand.

But even if parecon does provide the context for putting environment- destroying corporations on the defensive, does a participatory economy help protect the environment rather than become another devil we oppose? There's reason to think so. The quantitative data in the participatory planning procedure include indicative costs on the environment. Actions that have greater environmental impacts bear greater costs in the economy, rather than those in other economic models which tend to ignore such costs. Those who bear such environmental costs also possess decision-making power in proportion to their degree of impact, so they have the means in addition to the motivation to act.

The Montesi Maneuver

Assuming this proposal is sound and worthwhile, a number of objections can be raised. One is that this proposal is not very "realistic," and not apt to happen anytime soon, if ever, therefore it's not worth fighting for.

When it comes to matters of positive social change, what's deemed "realistic" can change, perhaps very dramatically. Very often, it's not a matter of hope but of serious and determined effort and effective planning. Ask anyone who helped bring down the Seattle World Trade Organization ministerial in 1999, or who helped stop (as I know firsthand FCC-led media concentration in 2003, or any of a number of activist efforts which were once dismissed as "unrealistic." Imagine what will be "realistic" tomorrow.

Another objection that can be raised is that there's no apparent way to get from here to there, so it's not worth trying. Just because there's no easy or apparent way doesn't mean that there is no way. (Indeed, it was often claimed that there was no "third way" for economics besides markets and command planning, until parecon came on the scene.) A proposed strategy is to use "non-reformist reforms"--aiming activist efforts in the here and now for tangible current reforms, but not stopping at winning those reforms for their own sake (important though they may be). Instead, the idea is to use those reforms as stepping stones towards a larger goal, in this case for winning a participatory economy.

Those who advocate such an approach can increase their chances for success if they can explain their relevance to and be aligned with other current movements for positive social change--like those already underway against corporations on a host of issues, including the environment.

These two efforts--advocacy for participatory economics and activism against corporate power--have had little in common, but I think they stand to gain tremendously from one another. The anti-corporate forces generally don't take an oppositional stance against markets, so they stand vulnerable to corporate blowback. Moreover, opposition to markets is well-nigh impossible without answering the question: "What economic system do you advocate instead?" And in return, parecon-aligned efforts can gain a whole new base of support and alliances that they didn't have before.

I propose a "merger" of sorts of anti-corporate efforts and those forces aligned with participatory economics. I call this the Montesi (pronounced "mon-TESS-ee") Maneuver, named for a family of clergy in American graphic novels in the 1980s who established a similar "merger" against another alignment of destructive forces.

Whether or not this Montesi Maneuver or other such maneuvers or "mergers" or even whole efforts will succeed is unclear, but what I think is clear is that such combinations of previously unrelated ideas or activist movements will be useful, perhaps necessary, in our quest to oppose and abolish corporate power and save the environment.

This article is based on the author's presentation at the June 29, 2008 Surviving Climate Change roundtable in St. Louis. Mitchell Szczepanczyk is a co-founder of and organizer with the Chicago Area Participatory Economics Society.