July 13, 2009

The Montesi Maneuver Extended: A Strategy Towards A Participatory Economy

You could select any topic that subsumes anything that might be called "left activism" -- the environment, war and militarism, labor rights, energy, education, media, electoral politics, food and drink, banking and finance, just to name a few broad topics. Chances are very good that one or more corporations hold a considerable, often overwhelming, degree of control and influence. The record documenting corporate influence and malfeasance is vast, and the efforts to combat corporations have been growing and gaining in influence. But one can aruge that their effectiveness has thus far been insufficient, and what is unquestionable is that those efforts must improve and escalate dramatically in order to secure a better future, or any future for that matter.

How to do so is the topic of this presentation, and this paper outlines one possible strategy, which involves the structure of corporations, the markets in which they thrive, the resulting irony of the structure of corporations, the relation of that to participatory economics, and how that is a proposed key to increasing an anti-corporate opposition. I have presented some of the ideas in what follows in ZNet and in other fora, so some of what follows may not be new to some.

A structural analysis of corporations

For the purposes of this essay, we define a corporation to be an economic entity legally defined with the goal of ever-increasing levels of short-term profit for its shareholders at the expense of everything else. That includes present considerations for human health, labor rights, and our shared natural environment, plus considerations pertaining to future generations from whom we are presently borrowing from them our time on this planet. To be sure, not all entities called "corporations", either now or in the past, were structured like this or obeyed this mandate, but our focus is those corporations which do pose a tremendous threat, which do understandably follow this mandate. We hone our definition accordingly.

In the course of striving for victories toward this aim, corporations have won limited liability status, which insulates them from increasing public costs which might affect their private profits. Worse, in the wake of the 1886 Santa Clara ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court, American corporations gained the status of persons, so that corporations can equate money as free speech in political elections and in decisions on coverage by corporate media outlets. Laws toward freedom of speech thus, in a perverted irony, become just another weapon in its arsenal.

But why would corporations want to gain such advantages? It seems almost silly to ask, but I think that there is non-obvious structural economic rationale for pursuit of these advantages. The rationale I'm referring to here is that corporations operate within a larger economic context - that of markets.

A structural analysis of markets

For our purposes, I emphasize the competitive nature of markets in this definition of markets: an institution of buyers and sellers where buyers and sellers are pitted against one another in antagonistic roles. Granted, it is possible to gain money and power in markets without antagonism between parties. But the roles of buyers and sellers are themselves by definition antagonistic, and it is clearly also possible (and common) to succeed in markets to treat them as cruel wrestling matches where the strongest survive.

Since winning is obviously better than losing, and since one can gain at the expense of others in a market, it thus makes sense to behave in a brutish fashion in a market -- to always behave in a way that would take advantage of others. That is, it's rational to become a monster, or exhibit behavior like that of a monster, in a market. One rational response in this context is to fight fire with fire, and become a monster in response. Then it becomes a matter of monsters fighting other monsters. And the bigger the monster, the better the chance to win. (Nietzsche is attributed with the following pertinent quote: "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster.")

The connection between markets and corporations

And that's where corporations come in. A corporation can be thought of as the equivalent of a monster in a market economy - an economic entity solely dedicated to its own sole purpose at the expense of everything else. In a competitive context where it's you or someone else fighting for something only one of you can get, it makes sense to develop into a monster to win those competitions. This also explains why markets tend to consolidate -- amid competition, participants tend to be eliminated through buyout or attrition or both, so that there are fewer players in the game, and markets as a result wind up concentrating.

In this context, markets -- long touted as an alternative to command economies -- actually promote command economies, though those command economies are internal to corporations. Since it's advantageous for an entity to behave like a monster within a market economy, if follows to keep that monstrous behavior within that entity's internal operations and internal structure. Thus, the internal structure of a corporation would tend to become a dictatorship -- power is concentrated in the relative few, a hierarchy of power is developed, orders come from the top down, obedience comes from the bottom up, and those within the structure are left with the only options to obey or leave.

One can take the list in Robin Hahnel's "Economic Justice and Democracy" of theoretical complaints leveraged against command economies that emerge from the state -- (1) there's a dictatorial down-go-orders, up-come-obedience dynamic; (2) social effects of consumption and production are never determined, (3) "conceptual workers" monopolize technical information, (4) managers and workers constantly fight each other -- and also leverage that list in a j'accuse fashion against corporations, precisely because corporations are also command economies. The market-advocating economist Milton Friedman, who spent his career criticizing command economies and touting markets as superior to command economies, may have ultimately become the biggest and most unwitting supporter of command economies -- the only difference being those command economies didn't emerge from the state. It stands to reason that command planning and markets are two sides of the same coin.

So, to follow a metaphor inspired by evolutionary biology, corporations emerge as the resulting dominant "lifeform" in this economic "niche" of markets. Thus, it would stand to reason that if the market "niche" is replaced with something else where the corporate "lifeform" is at a disadvantage, the corporate "lifeform" might die off or be replaced. But what economic "niche" do you put in its place instead to address economic needs, and how do you know what its replacement won't also have horrible consequences? The replacement, I believe, is that of participatory economics.

Enter stage left: Parecon

The economic model of parecon has widened in influence and attention in recent years, and it has gained increasing prominence as a model to promote solidarity, efficiency, equity, diversity, self-management, and environmental protection. I also submit that parecon can be the economic mechanism to abolish corporations and can be the strategic lynchpin for anti-corporate movements to leverage around.

Clearly, a participatory economy is antithetical to the ways a corporation functions. 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 strives to provide more fair decision-making power to its participants. Corporations rely on an external market to gain strength and prominence on a macro-scale and to maintain its hierarchical control and dominance on a micro-scale. Parecon does not use markets, but rather participatory planning for the shared goal of eliminating excess demand.

Some who oppose corporate actions may argue that they don't oppose what corporations are, they oppose what corporations do. Such a response avoids the issue: corporate actions and corporate structures are directly linked. The reason corporations are structured as they are is so they can act as they do, and markets serve as a key economic context and thus a key economic reason for market behavior. So, structurally speaking, those who oppose corporate actions have reason to oppose corporations. And those who oppose corporations have reason to oppose markets. And an opposition to markets requires a response to the matter of what economic model we use instead, which we believe to be participatory economics.

What follows next be considered to be controversial by some, obvious by others, but seldom formally stated aloud or in print. To wit: Those individuals and organizations who advocate against corporations or corporate actions should include market abolitionism and advocacy of participatory economics as a plank in their respective anti-corporate platforms and in the operation insofar as possible of their own organizations. Easier said than done. In fact, it's quite likely that convincing the left to do this would be far harder than convincing the general population.

Whether it be on the left, the general population, or some combination of the two, those of us who count ourselves as parecon advocates should act to widen parecon awareness and implementation among anti-corporate activists. The rewards are immense, the challenge perhaps moreso. But there's a potential here to unify and strengthen the anti-corporate movements as few things ever have.

In effect, I'm proposing a "merger" of sorts of anti-corporate efforts and those aligned with participatory economics. I call this the Montesi Maneuver, named for a family of clergy in American graphic novels in the 1980s who found a similar "merger" against another alignment of destructive forces.

The Montesi Maneuver: Some tactical considerations

In recent presentations I've given about participatory economics, I have mentioned three categories of actions that can be pursued to help lead us closer to a participatory economy: (1) Media and outreach efforts to widen awareness, (2) Challenging current non-parecon structures, (3) Building and sustaining new pareconish structures in our current economic climate. I would still advocate these three categories of action for this paper as well, but I'll now discuss these categories in light of the Montesi Maneuver.

On media and outreach: This can mean media creation of some sort, be it a flyer, an article, a book, a novel, an in-person speech, a radio interview, a short film, a video, a webpage, a website, a blog, a song, an album, and so forth. The parecon movement has certainly used this to help promote the model and widen awareness, but it's time for the movement to talk and develop ideas about how the model interacts with other parts of the economy and other social visions. In Chicago, I was part of a presentation that discussed parecon and its connection to finance (the link is available online at www.chicagoparecon.org). But the time has come for Parecon and Media 102, where we connect model more widely (the Montesi Maneuver being one realm), critique those connections, and expand the intellectual terrain further.

It also means defending and expanding those media outlets where media and discussion of such issues can actually happen. This is the terrain of media policy, those laws and policies which affect media. There has been some progress on this realm in the U.S. -- increased numbers of non-commercial low- power and educational FM radio outlets (with hopefully more on the way), blocks of repeated attempts to dramatically escalate media concentration (which is now playing a role in the newspaper and TV industries, certainly in the U.S.), and maintaining the principle of non-discrimination by internet service providers (also called "net neutralty"). There have also been defeats

  • losing the rights of some states to establish municipal internet networks, and losing some public access channels in the wake of lobbyist-pushed state video franchises, among the most notable. This should be a priority for left activists, not just to help win a participatory economy but to help buttress all activist efforts.

On challenging current structures: The Montesi Maneuver will face considerable opposition in the United States, ironically enough, from those groups and campaigns that have worked on anti-corporate campaigns. The reason, I submit, is that many U.S. non-profit organizations that have worked on campaigns against corporations are themselves structured as corporations. In the United States, non-profit organizations to achieve tax-exempt status are required by law to establish a hierarchical corporate structure (what is referred to as a 501c3). Grant money and large-scale donations fuel nonprofit hierarchical organizations in the nonprofit sector that abide by this corporate structure, and obviously any structure deviation from that (like that involving pareconish norms) puts that income stream at risk.

There are some 501c3s that actually do follow pareconish norms and institutions (for example, Z Communications). But overwhelmingly this is a terrain where we can expect a fight, to put it lightly. But we can also make some progress even here. To mention one personal example: I've been involved with the Economic Equity group of the Chicago chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Now, NOW is set up with a corporate structure, but as a member of the Economic Equity group in Chicago NOW, I've used my membership in the group to talk about participatory economics. Recently, the group has taken to discussing the model, particularly in the connections of parecon to women's economic equity, creating our own media on the topic, and building the basis for future action, including extending connections to other groups. The hope is that, once we have our foot in the door, we can extend the critique to the Montesi Maneuver.

And key among the tasks that lay before us is to stop making positive appeals to markets, whether it's public interest lobbyists speaking highly of markets in public pronouncements, to more "radical" economic models which some refer to as "market socialism" and try to shoehorn markets to behave more humanely. Indeed, provisions can be put in place to mitigate the negative effects of markets, just as we see in present-day efforts to oppose corporations, but corporations have a powerful incentive to fight back, and they also have the muscle thanks to the antagonistic predilection of markets to win a lot of their fights. As a result, proposals which incorporate markets in their vision, I think, are inevitably flawed, since markets serve as spawning grounds and as a source of strength for corporations.

On building structures: If we think we have a better model, we should show its merits in everyday life. We should implement it in our own lives and in institutions and in ways that we think are helpful that we think are helpful. The book "Real Utopia" mentions some examples, but there's tremendous potential beyond the choir. Let me quote an email from one parecon advocate who was also involved in some of the early development of Wikipedia, and referred to some principles of anarchism in Wikipedia's structure:

Wikipedia was a wonderful example of anarchy, but we agreed at some point that we were (1) building an encyclopedia and (2) borrowing some principles from anarchism in order to facilitate that...I bothered in Wikipedia because it was accomplishing something--the world's greatest resource of information, [free] for all to use--not because it was anarchistic. The spread of pareconish principles will come from people adopting them into tasks with other purposes; if Wikipedia had been about proving an anarchist model for information aggregation, it would have fallen flat on its face on the millions of arguments that arise.

Many have suggested establishing pareconish businesses, but many of those businesses have had one foot in activism - publishing, journalism, book selling. Along the lines of something like "Wikipedia", I wonder if a different approach might be to start businesses in markets outside the "traditional" left professions, then use some of the profits to help fund left activist efforts in campaigns to help people. We are seeing some examples with parecon-inspired business in areas as diverse and unlikely as symphony music, computer programming, extreme travel, and dentristy. More activities, in realms that can include sports, law, medicine, engineering, and consulting, are ripe for new parecon-related exploration -- but we can't be afraid of foreclosing our options. Indeed, some of the most important activist work now might be in the realm of imagination, for it's there that we spur the new actions that we need to change the world.

When corporations attack: A final word of preemptive action

I'll conclude this presentation with a word about what to do the inevitable attacks that this movement will face when it continues to grow and build and expand. If current trends continue and current activism proceeds, we can expect this movement to enter the realm of increased public awareness and attacks from those who want to strangle it in the crib.

What form might those attacks take? One is that of slander, smearing the name of parecon through the mud as was done with words like "socialist" or "liberal", which then makes it convenient for verbal attacks. We see a current example of this in the current battle for domestic health care reform in the United States. The best available option for the public, and which growing numbers of activists have been advocating, is that of a single-payer system much like that in most of the industrialized world.

But on those rare occasions when single-payer is mentioned in the major corporate media, it is always attacked, and the attacks take the form of using terms which are deemed dismissive or slanderous, like "socialist", which then ends the discussion. I think we can expect parecon to follow this pattern, where the name will be snarled at and attacked. One tactic we can use to respond to this would be to have at the ready new terms to describe the institutions so that if we have to we can abandon one term but we can continue our work, so that we're not groping for very long to find a new term to describe the institutions we're advocating for.

We can also one day expect a more concerted physical attack upon parecon institutions by dominant sectors, reminiscent of the COINTELPRO attacks upon American activists in the 1960s. If so, then slander would seem tame by comparison and more drastic defenses might be in order. Some of those defenses might take the form of the kind of "affinity groups" organizing efforts that left activist groups in recent years have used to elude future interlopers, though how that might manifest itself when building an entire new economy is a question that I leave open for the time being.