Media and the model of a participatory economy

Posted by Mitchell - June 2, 2024 (entry 774)

I was heavily involved in political activism from 2003 through 2012 -- focusing mostly on media in various manifestations (making independent media, challenging major media, working on media policy). I then went through a lull of nearly five years where I did almost no political activism, and then starting in 2017 I got back into being politically active. However, for various personal and practical reasons, I made the focus of my activism since 2017 to be economics rather than in media -- and in particular an economic model has come to be known as the model of a participatory economy.

This newsletter -- with an explicit focus on media -- might not seem to be the most appropriate forum for a discussion of economics, but I do believe there is an important connection between the two. As I discussed in a past lecture on the history of media activism in the United States, one could make a strong case that media in the United States (and arguably worldwide) changed for the worse as a result of our existing market/capitalist economic relations. Examples are legion: the increase of advertising and of corporate ownership and concentration of newspapers, the corporate takeover of the radio and television spectrum, and most recently the corporatization of the internet and the growing morass of what has come to be called "social media", among others.

But while there is wide disdain about our existing market/capitalist economy and the negative impacts it has on our media and much else besides, the discussion of how that should be addressed -- the question of what alternate economy should be instead sought for and how that transformation into a more sane and humane economy could happen -- is in my estimation not very widespread, certainly nowhere near as widespread as it should be. I will say, in my own experience within Chicago Media Action during the decade of the height of its activity (also the years 2003 through 2012), the matter of what alternative economy to fight for was seldom discussed in open meetings. In those rare instances when I did bring it up in private conversations, I found real disagreement. I felt that working the question head-on didn't really change CMA's work during its most active time, so I didn't really press the matter.

But I think it is worth discussing, to express as clearly as I can where I stand personally on the topic, with the hope of starting or furthering a dialogue, so as to get a sense on where others stand on the issue -- if others do indeed hold an opinion on the matter. We'll need to hone our thinking and our arguments on the matter, and provide more of the proverbial "ideas that are lying around" during times of crisis (to quote Naomi Klein in a paraphrase of Milton Friedman) that may be closer than any of us think.

This can be a prickly pear to bite into, and could engender a very real chance of some deep disagreement. I'm frankly hoping for that; if it turns out that my thinking on the matter is somehow flawed or incorrect, I sure would like to know about it now. It's much easier to change my mind before I get locked in to a bad situation than when I'm already in one.

With that, let me outline where I currently and personally stand on the matter of what economy I would advocate for, what I have been doing on that front, and how it could tie in to media in sketch outline form.

A bit of background first. For most of the 20th century, the world was dominated by two main economic models: capitalism, which use markets as a primary allocation mechanism; and a system which have been called "communism" or "socialism" which use command planning as a primary allocation mechanism. Both have their flaws, amply documented by supporters of the opposing side.

But in recent decades, there have emerged proposals around a third school of thought which uses neither markets nor command planning. This school has been given the name "democratic planning", which proposes economies where people democratically plan their economies, without competition and without a command authority. (There is a list of a number of proposed democratically-planned economies in an appendix of a book I contributed to, "Democratic Economic Planning".)

In the past seven years, I have been at the forefront of research on one of these models: a model co-invented by Z Magazine co-founder Michael Albert and economics professor Robin Hahnel, which has come to be known as the model of a participatory economy. (Some readers may know of the model by the names "parecon" or "participatory economics", though among those of us who work with on the model closely, "the model of a participatory economy" has become the preferred name of the model in recent years.)

What is the model and how does it work? In very brief and incomplete outline: (1) The economy is comprised of decision-making bodies run by the people who work in them to produce goods and services ("workers' councils" as they're called), and who live in them to consume those good and services ("consumer councils" as they're called). (2) Those decision-making bodies propose and revise plans for what to produce or consume in an iterated allocation process called "participatory planning" with the shared goal of eliminating all excess demand in the economy. (3) The economy includes other rules to make things fair and equitable, including rules regarding fair work (ensuring that all jobs have a fair mix of tasks for desirability, empowerment, and caring labor) and fair payment (ensuring that people are paid commensurate to their effort and sacrifice in socially-valued labor, tempered by need).

Note: There is a lot to share about the model and how it works or could work, much more than I can summarize in a paragraph. Entire presentations, including books that cite my work, videos I have made, research papers I wrote, podcasts I helped produce, and computer programs I helped write that simulate the model, are all available for your consideration.

But back to media. There has been, as far as I know, zero discussion anywhere, even among democratic-planning advocates, of how media would work in such a democratically-planned economy, so let me take this opportunity to fill in that gap a bit and offer some speculation. As is the case presently, you would have workplaces that produce media -- possibly content in one or another medium, but possibly the same or similar content across different media. However, unlike present circumstances where private profit and corporate ownership dictate what gets produced, consumer councils would weigh in proposing what media they would want to consume.

Worker councils that produce socially valuable media would, one would imagine, work to gain the approval of consumer councils and earn the resources they need to produce their media. They would answer to the consumers who request socially valuable content, rather than to private interests who only focus on content that is amenable to private profit. Corporate entities that would try to "compete" in this realm would be maladaptive in such an economy because they would waste time and resources in hierarchies and internal struggles rather than, you know, producing media.

It's an intriguing prospect -- intriguing to me, that is -- and I think merits further work, thinking, and discussion. I have kept my work in economics pretty much separate from my work in media, but as I write this, I now wonder if that should now change. Perhaps this essay is the start of that change.

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